Punctuating dialogue need not be scary (Part 1)

woman tearing hairPunctuating dialogue seems to be a problem for many writers. But it need not be scary. There are conventions (rules) to apply, but once you know them, it’s straightforward. Honest ūüėČ

Beautiful Woman Sitting At Night Forest And Reading Fairy Tale BookCome and discover the rules in the company of Princess Ricotta, her dim but impressively ripped suitors Prince Square-Jaw and Prince Six-Pack, and her conniving servants Slack-Britches and Mozarella. The fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese awaits you.

Those of you who are already confident about punctuating dialogue can read the fairytale just for fun. I hope you enjoy Ricotta’s adventures, even with unpunctuated dialogue. For those whose punctuation might need a bit of help, keep reading.

Punctuating dialogue is only convention

The conventions of punctuating dialogue have evolved over many years. Some of them seem pretty arbitrary but rules often are. We just have to accept them. Their aim is simple, though: to make it easy for readers to understand what’s going on.

Cover A Regency Invitation by Cornick Maitland and RollsHere’s the same Joanna Maitland paragraph in 4 different languages. First the original English, followed by the French, German and Italian editions, as published.

¬† ¬† ¬†“I was not aware that another guest had arrived,” Amy said politely. She was pleased at how calm she sounded. “Do you expect to make a long stay, sir?” ¬†
[An Uncommon Abigail]

¬† ¬† ¬†‚ÄĒ Je ne savais pas qu’un nouvel invit√© √©tait arriv√©, dit Amy. Avez-vous l’intention de s√©journer longtemps parmi nous, Sir ?
¬† ¬† ¬†Elle se f√©licita du ton tranquille et pos√© qu’elle avait pu prendre.¬†
[Une étrange suivante]

¬† ¬† ¬†‚ÄěMir is gar nicht aufgefallen dass ein weiterer Gast angereist ist‚Äú, bemerkte Amy freundlich, aber mit fester Stimme. Sir war froh, nun wieder einigerma√üen ruhig zu klingen. ‚ÄěHaben Sie vor, l√§nger zu bleiben, Sir?‚Äú¬† [St√ľrmische Herzen im Herbst]

¬† ¬† ¬†¬ęNon ero informata dell’arrivo di un altro ospite¬Ľ disse Amy educatamente. Si compiacque della calma che dimostrava. ¬ęPrevedete di fermarvi a lungo, signore?¬Ľ¬†¬†[Amy]

They all use different punctuation, according to their own conventions. Don’t bother about the words. Just note that the conventions differ. You might notice, though, that the French version doesn’t have quotation marks around Amy’s actual speech. That means that descriptive text can’t be included, because the reader might be confused into thinking that Amy says the words aloud. Instead, a separate paragraph is added afterwards. French rules!

Readers know how to read and interpret the conventions of their own language. So we, as professional authors, need to give them the conventions they’re used to seeing. There’s no mystique about punctuating dialogue. It just a set of rules that authors need to learn and then apply.

And the fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese (which uses British rules) will show you how.

Welcome to the Ricotta Dialogues ~ A Fairytale

ONCE UPON A TIME, in the rich and peaceful kingdom of Bel Paese, there ruled a good King, Bill, and his beautiful and beloved Queen, Belle. Paese was full of sunlight and happiness. The people sang as they went about their daily work.

But Queen Belle did not sing. Queen Belle was sad. For in the many years of their marriage, the King and Queen had had no children of their own. And who would rule Bill and Belle’s Paese when they were gone?

Queen Belle knew she had no choice; she consulted a witch. As it happened, she had one more or less to hand since her faithful retainer, Slack-Britches, was well-connected on the witching front. His great-aunt Mascarpone was the head of the local coven. Belle and Mascarpone put their heads together and came up with a foolproof witcherly plan. 

And lo! a year later, Queen Belle was cradling a baby daughter in her arms.

King Bill gazed proudly down at their first-born. What shall we call her

Ricotta Belle Paese replied the Queen firmly. It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think, dear? Fit for a princess.

The blue text above is unpunctuated dialogue. Can you punctuate it (without looking at the answers below)?

Punctuating dialogue : the basic sentence #1

The first basic dialogue sentence is like this, with a simple speech flag‚ÄĒhe said. (NB I’m using double quotes.**)

“The dog chased the cat,” he said.

A few things to note.
There is a comma before the closing quotation marks. And the speech flag‚ÄĒhe said¬†or she said¬†etc‚ÄĒis¬†never capitalised. The full stop goes at the end rather than inside the quote marks.

smirkIf the dialogue sentence is an exclamation or a question, nothing much changes:

“The dog chased the cat!” he cried.
“Did the dog chase the cat?” he asked.

Even after a question mark or exclamation mark, the speech flag isn’t capitalised. But most basic dialogue has a comma before the closing quotes,¬†provided it’s followed by a speech flag.

Punctuating dialogue : the basic sentence #2

The second basic dialogue sentence has no speech flag and the punctuation goes inside the closing quotes. So:

King Bill gazed proudly down at their first-born. “What shall we call her?”

You got that right, didn’t you? With the question mark inside the closing quotes? And you probably got the next lines right too:

“Ricotta Belle Paese,” replied the Queen firmly. “It has a fine ring to it, don‚Äôt you think, dear? Fit for a princess.”

The Queen’s first speech is our first basic dialogue sentence with a speech flag. So there is a comma after¬†Paese and before the closing quotes. And the speech flag‚ÄĒreplied the Queen firmly‚ÄĒhas no capital letter. You may have spotted that this flag had the verb first. We could equally well have written it as below. The punctuation rules remain the same.

“Ricotta Belle Paese,” the Queen replied firmly.

forget the starsThe rest of the Queen’s speech is simple sentences without speech flags‚ÄĒbasic type 2. So they, and their punctuation, go inside the quotation marks.

If you learn these two basic rules, you’ll be well on the way to punctuating dialogue correctly, because most dialogue in stories uses one or other of these 2 basic types.

The Ricotta Dialogues in full (but unpunctuated)

If you want to read the whole fairytale, you can see the pdf of the full text here. It runs to 2 A4 pages. Print it off, if it helps.

I think you’ll agree, once you’ve tried to read it, that, without punctuation, dialogue can be hard to follow. It’s easy for a reader to trip up without punctuation marks.

And if you’re brave enough to want to attempt to insert all the missing punctuation, why not have a go? No one will be looking over your shoulder.

I’ll admit that some of the dialogue is rather more difficult to punctuate than the basic examples given above. But I’ll be explaining the rules for all of those exceptions later. And I promise that there will be a full answer sheet at the end of this series of blogs.

More basics of punctuating dialogue : split sentences

Let’s go back to our dog and cat. Here’s a longer piece of dialogue. As written below, it’s just basic type 1, with a speech flag.

“The dog chased the cat, but he didn’t catch her,” he said, grinning wickedly.

But what if the flag goes in the middle of the speech? Then you get this:

“The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”

Red question mark sign against a blue sky

The first part of the sentence looks like a basic type 1 until you get to the word wickedly. Because the speech flag is splitting a single speech, two things change:
1     there is a comma (not a full stop) after the full speech flag;
2     there is no capital letter after the second opening quotation marks.
If you think about it, it makes sense. You saw at the top of this section that the speech was a single sentence. You don’t want to change that.¬†If you’d put a full stop after¬†wickedly, you’d have changed the meaning. You’d have put a great big pause in there, which would have made the rest of the speech into an afterthought, a sort of “and, by the way, he didn’t catch her.”

Try reading these two versions. The meanings are subtly different.

A ¬†“The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”
B ¬†“The dog chased the cat, he said, grinning wickedly. “But he didn’t catch her.”

chatting about authors we loveIf you’re unsure about split sentences like A above, read the speech aloud without the speech flag. You’ll then be able to judge whether the direct speech is one sentence or more than one. The pauses will tell you where the full stops go. Then you can put the speech flag back in.

There are examples of this kind of split dialogue sentence in the Ricotta Dialogues pdf. See if you can work out how to punctuate lines 22 and 28. Or, further down the story, try line 49.

Them’s the rules : a recap

Rule 1: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag eg:
“Ricotta Belle Paese,” replied the Queen firmly.

  • comma (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quote marks; never a full stop
  • no capital at start of speech flag
  • full stop after speech flag.

Rule 2: a dialogue sentence (or sentences) with no speech flag eg:
“What shall we call her?”

  • full stop (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quote marks
  • may be several sentences all within a single set of quotation marks

Rule 3: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag in the middle eg
“The dog chased the cat,” he said, grinning wickedly, “but he didn’t catch her.”

  • provided it’s a single sentence, comma followed by closing quote marks before speech flag; never a full stop
  • no capital for start of speech flag
  • comma after speech flag
  • second part of speech sentence begins without capital letter
  • second part of speech sentence ends with full stop (or exclamation mark etc) before closing quotes
  • to check if it’s a single sentence, read it aloud without the speech flag in the middle and judge for yourself.

Good luck! And I’ll be back soon with more examples (and answers) from the¬†Ricotta Dialogues.

Joanna Maitland author


Note re double quotes:

I’ve used double quotation marks throughout. You may be aware that most UK publishers use single quotation marks for speech. Most US publishers use double quotes. I normally use double quotes for two reasons: (1) they’re easier to see on screen and on the page; and (2) it’s a doddle to change from double to single quotes via Find/Replace All, but it’s incredibly complicated and tedious to change from single to double‚ÄĒall those apostrophes, in¬†don’t, I’ve, they’ll etc, turn into¬†don”t, I”ve, they”ll and so on. You may have to go through the whole MS to correct them all.ball and chain labelled sin

Double quotes are fine for self-publishing, but if you’re writing for a publisher, you should use whatever style they prescribe. Don’t commit the cardinal sin of ignoring your publisher’s conventions.
Them’s the rules!

9 thoughts on “Punctuating dialogue need not be scary (Part 1)

  1. Sophie

    You are definitely Le Grand Fromage when it comes to explaining things, Joanna. Very helpful.

    1. Joanna Post author

      That, coming from the co-author of Getting the Point, A Panic-free Guide to Punctuation is a great compliment. Blushing here.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Absolutely love the story, punctuation or no punctuation. I was relieved that I knew all your basic rules and use them. Phew! A fun explanation as well as a useful one.
    As for double quotation marks, I always use them now and have just done the very tedious task of changing a scanned reverted book from single to double along with all those don”t etc that appear. Fortunately quite a lot of them can be altered with global replace. You also have to catch the -urn and -orn that turn into -um and -om. Spellchecker picks up quite a lot of them, but lots of readthroughs needed to be certain you’ve got everything – as well as editing to current writing standard, of course.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You are so right about scanned books, Liz. And the tedious task of changing single quotes to double. I have a checklist (somewhere) that I did for myself to make the task a little easier, but even then, there’s usually the odd one that gets through. Total pain.

  3. janegordoncumming

    So how do you punctuate: What were they going to call her, he wondered.
    Is there a question mark where I’ve put the comma, even though it’s mid-sentence, or at the end, or none? (Sorry if I’ve missed this somewhere above, but it puzzles me every time.)

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d say that’s indirect speech, Jane, and that it doesn’t require punctuation as dialogue at all. After all, what actually went through his mind was not the words you wrote. Rather: What are we going to call her? I think that Getting The Point takes the same line re the rules for indirect speech.

      If in doubt, ask yourself what words the speaker actually said/wondered. If they’re different from your first version, you’re probably in indirect speech. Hence no dialogue punctuation.

      It occurs to me that you may be getting confused because of having comma he wondered at the end of the sentence. It sounds like a speech flag and so you’re tempted to treat the sentence as dialogue. But it isn’t. You’ll probably see that if you change it round to: He wondered what they were going to call her. That is more clearly a reported thought. Again, no question mark because it isn’t actually a question. It’s not the exact thought but a report of it.

      As indirect speech, it’s correct as you’ve written it and there shouldn’t be a question mark anywhere. As direct speech, it would be: “What are we going to call her?” he wondered.

      That assumes he wondered aloud. If it was silent wondering, the convention is either to omit the quotation marks and the question mark; or to use italics with question mark. It makes sense not to use quotation marks because they’re for things that are said. Silent thoughts are not dialogue.

      So for silent wondering, the alternatives are:
      What are we going to call her, he wondered.
      What are we going to call her? he wondered.
      The important thing is to be consistent in how you show a character’s unspoken thoughts on the page. If you have to show them in that form at all. Sometimes it flows better to use something like your original formulation eg He wondered what they were going to call her.

      Sorry it’s so long but hope it helps a bit.

  4. janegordoncumming

    For some reason I can’t see either my comment or (nor?) Joanna’s helpful reply on this page, only per e-mail. Anyway, the answer is that indirect speech doesn’t have a question mark at all, which I never knew, despite Miss Edmonds’ rigorous training. Thank you so much for clearing this up.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Your browser may be using a cached page, Jane. Try reloading the page to see if you can see all the comments.

    2. Joanna Post author

      PS It’s either/or or neither/nor. So your original version was correct with “either my comment or Joanna’s”

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