Punctuating dialogue (Part 2) Beyond the Basics

Lichtenstein castleLast week I introduced you to the fairytale kingdom of Bel Paese and gave you the first three rules of punctuating dialogue. Today we go beyond the basics.

If you want the recap, it’s at the end of my previous blog here. And you can still download the Ricotta Dialogues here.

This week we’re going to look at slightly more complicated punctuation of dialogue. It’s not used all the time, but it is useful to learn and apply the rules.
As before, they’re simple.

But first, last week’s answers?

I challenged you to punctuate three bits of dialogue from the Ricotta Dialogues using Basic Rule 3 for split sentences. I’m sure you worked them out for yourselves, but here are the answers anyway:

Line 22
King Bill nodded. Then, “Perhaps,” he said, brightening, “now that we have a girl child, we might hope for a boy as well? To follow me as king? We’ve had one miracle.” He beamed at her. “Might there not be another?”
girl facing a red question mark on blackboardNote that the dialogue begins with a capital letter—Perhapseven though that is not the first word in the sentence. The start of a sentence of dialogue always has a capital letter after the opening quotes. Maybe we should add that to the Basic Rules?
Also note that this paragraph has a split sentence of dialogue at the beginning, but not at the end where there are three short sentences: two dialogue, one description. If you read it aloud, it should be clear where the full stops come.
Line 28  
“We may always hope,” said Queen Belle airily, “but I think we had best cherish the heir we have, since she took so many years to appear.”
Line 49
“Square-Jaw is hairy,” Ricotta announced, before Mozarella could finish, “and I don’t like hairy men. Six-Pack would be hairy too, except that he shaves his torso to show off his…er…six-pack.”

Beyond the basics: interruptions

girl with finger across lips for silenceDuring a conversation, people often interrupt each other. So Person A doesn’t get a chance to finish her sentence before Person B jumps in with a different sentence. How do the punctuation rules show that?

Here’s an example from lines 47-49 of the Ricotta Dialogues. (You already know, from above, how lines 49-50 are punctuated, but the start is here again for completeness):

     Definitely fit she said Either of them turn you on, Princess? If you chose one of them that would leave the other one for
     Square-Jaw is hairy Ricotta announced, before Mozarella could finish [etc]

To show that someone’s speech has been interrupted mid-sentence, we use a dash (usually the long em-dash) followed by the closing quotation marks. No full stops, or questions marks, or exclamation marks. Just a dash. Don’t put a space before the dash either, because the dash can then wander to a new line or page in ebooks.
You would punctuate the dialogue above as follows:

   “Definitely fit,” she said. “Either of them turn you on, Princess? If you chose one of them, that would leave the other one for—”
     “Square-Jaw is hairy,” Ricotta announced, before Mozarella could finish, “and I don’t like hairy men. Six-Pack would be hairy too, except that he shaves his torso to show off his…er…six-pack.”

Simple, no? I’ll add that to the recap of Rules at the end.

Beyond the basics: tailing off

woman with "What if…?" think bubbleSometimes, speakers start a sentence but tail off without finishing it. That’s not because someone interrupts them but because they start thinking rather than speaking. The punctuation is similar to that for interruptions except that an ellipsis replaces the em-dash and there can be a question mark at the end, before the closing quotes.

[An ellipsis is those three little dots you often see in books, like this … Note that an ellipsis is a single character, not 3 full stops. In Word for Windows, the keyboard shortcut is Ctrl+Alt+Full Stop; in Word for Mac, it’s Alt+Semi-colon.]

cartoon catI forgot to include one of those in the Ricotta Dialogues (nobody’s perfect, eh?) so we’ll use a new example. Back to our dog and cat:

“The dog chased the cat,” he said. “But what if the cat didn’t run? What might she…?”

I hope you agree it’s straightforward. So now we have two new rules for the recap.

Beyond the basics: paragraphing dialogue

The convention is that there should be a new paragraph for each new speaker. It’s obvious when you think about it, especially if there are no speech flags. How often, when reading, have you got lost in a page of unflagged dialogue and had to go back to count the paragraphs to find out which speaker is which?

If you read through your unpunctuated version of the Ricotta Dialogues, you’ll see that they follow the one speaker per paragraph rule.

What’s more, the actions of the person speaking should be in the same paragraph as the dialogue or in a separate paragraph, before or after the dialogue. The actions of Speaker A should never be in the dialogue paragraph of Speaker B or how would you know who’s taking the action? It’s only common sense, isn’t it?

Beyond the basics: dividing up long passages of speech

man with outstretched empty handThere is one additional quirk about paragraphing dialogue. Speaker A may have a lot to say. You may want to divide A’s speech into more than one paragraph. There’s a convention about doing that, too 😉

Have a look at lines 28-33 of the Ricotta Dialogues. Queen Belle is speaking for two paragraphs. How do we punctuate that?

The convention is that there are no closing quotation marks at the end of a paragraph of speech if the same speaker’s words begin the next paragraph. That next paragraph does, however, begin with opening quotation marks. Here’s the punctuated version of the text you’ve seen:

    joined hands of wedding couple“We may always hope,” said Queen Belle airily, “but I think we had best cherish the heir we have, since she took so many years to appear.” She smiled at her husband. “When she is old enough to marry, we can look for the right kind of suitor. It goes without saying that he must be a prince. Blue blood is paramount in the reigning business. And preferably a rich prince, though I suppose Ricotta will be rich enough to marry a poor one if nothing better is on offer.
     “Ricotta will be allowed to choose for herself, of course. We want her to be in love, as we were,” she added, gazing wistfully over King Bill’s shoulder.

You’ll notice that there are no closing quotes after the word offer; but the next paragraph begins with opening quotes. That’s all there is to it.

You may never need to use this convention, but it’s best to know what it is and how to apply it. Then you can look at newspaper articles and see how often journos and subs get it wrong. (Believe me, they do!)

Questions for next time

blue question marksNext time, I’m going to be addressing dialogue sentences where there is an action splitting the speech but no speech flags. Have a look at the example below, from line 52:

     Mozarella Ricotta raised an admonishing finger there are some things that a minion should not ask.

How would you punctuate that? Answers in Part 3 of this blog.
Meanwhile, to recap the rules so far:

Them’s the rules : recap #2 (revised and extended)

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
  • a dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence eg
    Then, “Perhaps,” he said, brightening, “now that we have a girl child, we might hope for a boy as well? To follow me as king? We’ve had one miracle.”

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
  • a dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence (see example in Rule 1).

Rule 3: a dialogue sentence with a speech flag in the middle eg
“We may always hope,” said Queen Belle airily, “but I think we had best cherish the heir we have, since she took so many years to appear.”

  • 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
  • dialogue sentence always starts with a capital after opening quotes, even if the dialogue does not start the whole sentence (see example in Rule 1)
  • 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.

Rule 4: a dialogue sentence that is incomplete because of interruption eg
“Definitely fit,” she said. “Either of them turn you on, Princess? If you chose one of them, that would leave the other one for—”

  • em-dash immediately following last word, followed by closing quotes
  • no other punctuation for end of speech.

Rule 5: a dialogue sentence that is incomplete because the speaker tails off eg
“The dog chased the cat,” he said. “But what if the cat didn’t run? What might she…?”

  • ellipsis immediately following last word, usually followed by closing quotes
  • no other punctuation for end of speech unless it is clearly a question, in which case the ellipsis is followed by a question mark before the closing quotes eg
    “What if…?”

Rule 6: paragraphing dialogue

  • only one person should speak in a paragraph
  • Speaker A’s actions may be in the paragraph of A’s speech, or in a separate paragraph before/after the pararaph of A’s speech
  • the speaker’s actions should never be in a paragraph where another speaker speaks
  • there are no closing quotation marks at the end of a paragraph of speech if the same speaker’s words begin the next paragraph. That next paragraph does, however, begin with opening quotation marks.

If there are any specific questions about punctuating dialogue that you’d like me to answer, please put them in the comments and I’ll do my best.
Back soon with more challenges. And answers, too.

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna

PS PS You can now find Part 1 of Punctuating Dialogue here
and Part 3 here

Have your say . . .

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.