Tag Archives: punctuating dialogue

Punctuationg Dialogue

Today I’m going to talk about punctuating dialogue.
First of all, let me begin by defining some terms. I find writers, like many other professions, use their jargon so often they forget that new people may not know them. So here goes.
1. Tags. These are the words used to indicate who is speaking. They are things like ‘he said’, ‘Judith whispered’ and the like.
2. Beats, These are words telling you what someone is doing. e.g. Fred paced to the window. ‘Are you sure she said that?’ he asked.
Here, ‘Fred paced to the window’ is a beat.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, lets continue with our punctuation.

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I admit that when I started writing, I was unsure about this. I did not know what punctuation to put after the speech and after the tag. I learned by reading books and other writers’ blogs. Not a bad way to learn. In fact, a very good way to learn.
The first thing I should note is that US English and British English use quotation marks the opposite way round from each other. As I am British, I use British English, and the dialogue in my books is the British Standard.
In British English, we use single quotation marks for direct speech and double quotation marks for speech quoted within that speech. (Not very good English there. I apologise.)
Mary said, ‘Jaqui, go and see who rang the doorbell.’
and,
Jaqui said, ‘It’s John. He said, “I’ve come to return the book you lent me.” Do you want to see him?’
In American English it’s the other way round. The above would look like this:
Mary said, “Jaqui, go and see who rang the doorbell.”
and
Jaqui said, “It’s John. He said, ‘I’ve come to return the book you lent me.’ Do you want to see him?”
The quotes, either British or US go round direct speech only. If it is indirect, then there are no quotes.
This would be wrong.
‘John said that he came ‘to return the book you lent him’.
Whenever we write ‘he said’. ‘she whispered’, etc, we always separate it from the quote using commas. See the above examples.
Now should the punctuation be inside or outside the quotation marks? That depends on whether it is part of the quotation or not, Here are some examples.
‘How can he return a book’, said Mary, ‘when I never lent him one?’
‘Said Mary’ interrupts the sentence she is saying, which is, ‘How can he return a book when I never lent him one?’ The comma goes outside the quotation marks.
But if the quotation mark is part of what is being said, then it goes inside.
John said, ‘Did you not lend me this book then?’
The question mark is part of John’s speech so it goes inside the quotation marks. If it was a full stop (period if you are in the USA) then, as it ends John’s speech, it would go inside as well.

John said, ‘I’m sure I borrowed it from you.’

The punctuation goes outside the quotation marks if it is not part of the quoted material.

Now, if you have a beat, then that is completely separate.
Susan walked to the window and looked out. ‘Tell John to come in and bring the book up.’
There is a full stop (period) after the beat and not a comma because it is a separate action. I would say that we only put a comma after or before a tag, not a beat.
That’s enough for now, Hope I’ve not confused you.
Please feel free to make a comment of any kind.

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