Dialogue Punctuation 101

By: Pat Marcello

Many new writers don't realize how important it is to send editors a manuscript that's not only properly formatted, but one that looks professional. If your spelling, usage, and punctuation are out of whack, chances are your manuscript will be returned to you. Editors don't have time to work with writers who haven't done their homework. On the other hand, they may be quite impressed by a first-time author who knows the ropes and take a long look at the work, just because it's been presented in a professional manner.

One puzzling area for most new (and some not-so-new) writers is dialogue punctuation. It looks quite complicated, but really, it's not. Here are some guidelines:

A tag line (he/she said) should usually come at the end of the sentence, like this:

"Where should we go today?" asked Timmy.

"I'm ready to go fishing," said Jack.

Notice the punctuation that ends each quotation. Questions or exclamations should always be followed by question marks or exclamation points. The quotation in a declarative sentence (a statement) requires a comma at the end of the quote. Both examples are completed with a period at the end of the tag line to complete the sentence.

Never put tag lines first, and never write, "Jack said." I'm not sure why, but it's become a convention to write the "said" before the speaker.

Sometimes, for flow or clarity, you may want to insert tag lines into a broken quote, like this:

"Mommy," Paula said, "can I have a glass of water?"

Notice that the beginning of the quote ends with a comma, as does the tag line. The continuation of the quote begins with lower case. Why? Because the sentence doesn't stop until you get to the end of the entire quotation, and since it's a question, it ends with a question mark.

If you remember these rules, you'll be golden:

* End questions or exclamations inside a quotation with question marks or exclamation points and statements with periods.

* End tag lines with periods, unless they're contained within a broken quotation.

* In a broken quotation, use a comma at the end of the break and at the end of the tag line. Resume the quote in lower case. Use the appropriate punctuation mark to close (period, question mark, exclamation point).

* Remember that periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quotation marks, but question marks and exclamation points go inside only if they’re part of the quote.

Not so hard, eh?

It's also best to use "said" most often with tag lines. Too many exclaimeds, replies, questioneds, etc. only serve to distract readers. Keep it simple.

And never use an action to close your quote. Here's what I mean:

"I miss my puppy," Tom sighed.

Nobody I know can gasp, giggle, huff, or shrug words. Instead, make the quotation and the action two distinct sentences:

"I miss my puppy." Tom sighed.

Sometimes, you shouldn't use a tag line at all. When two people are conversing and have only a few lines, you don't need a tag line, as long as readers will understand who is speaking. Yet, insert tag lines anytime you think it may not be clear.

Getting your dialogue punctuation correct is a big turn on for editors. Well, it was for me because so many new writers have trouble with the procedure. But I can honestly say that when I saw it done right, I took a harder look at the story. Buck up! It’s really NOT that bad.

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