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Punctuation in Dialogue

December 8, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 18, 2016


The PDF Punctuation in Dialogue ($0.99) and The Magic of Fiction (available in paperback and PDF) both contain expanded and updated versions of this material.


Dialogue hpunctuation graphicas its own rules for punctuation. Commas go in particular places, as do terminal marks such as periods and question marks.

Only what is spoken is within the quotation marks. Other parts of the same sentence—dialogue tags and action or thought—go outside the quotation marks.

Dialogue begins with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins. (Interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped.)

Only direct dialogue requires quotation marks. Direct dialogue is someone speaking. Indirect dialogue is a report that someone spoke. The word that is implied in the example of indirect dialogue.

Direct: “She was a bore,” he said.

Indirect: He said [that] she was a bore.

Here are some of the rules, with examples.

Single line of dialogue, no dialogue tag
The entire sentence, including the period (or question mark or exclamation point) is within the quotation marks.

“He loved you.”

Single line with dialogue tag (attribution) following
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. A period ends the sentence. Punctuation serves to separate the spoken words from other parts of the sentence.

Because the dialogue tag—she said—is part of the same sentence, it is not capped.

“He loved you,” she said.

Single line with dialogue tag first
The comma still separates the dialogue tag from the spoken words, but it is outside the quotation marks, and the period is inside the quotation marks.

She said, “He loved you.”

Single line of dialogue with dialogue tag and action
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag is next and the action follows the tag—no capital letter because this is part of the same sentence—with a period to end the sentence.

“He loved you,” she said, hoping Sue didn’t hear her.

The action and dialogue tag can also come first.

Leaning away, she said, “He loved you.”

Dialogue interrupted by dialogue tag
Dialogue can be interrupted by a tag and then resume in the same sentence. Commas go inside the first set of quotation marks and after the dialogue tag (or action).

“He loved you,” she said, “but you didn’t care.”

“He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction, “but you didn’t care.”

Separating this into two sentences also works. The first sentence will end with a period and the second will begin with a capital letter.

“He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction. “But you didn’t care.”

Questions in dialogue, no dialogue tag
Question mark is inside the quotation marks.

Use this same construction for the exclamation point.

“He loved you?”

“He loved you!”

Questions in dialogue, with dialogue tag
Question mark is inside quotation marks. There is no comma. The tag doesn’t begin with a cap since it’s part of the same sentence, even though there’s a question mark in the middle of the sentence.

Use this same construction for the exclamation point.

“He loved you?” she asked, the loathing clear in her voice and posture.

“He loved you!” she said, pointing a finger at Sally.

Dialogue interrupted by action or thought but no dialogue tag
Characters can pause in their words to do something and then resume the dialogue. If there is no dialogue tag, special punctuation is required to set off the action or thought.

Enclose the first part of the dialogue in quotation marks but omit the comma. Follow the end quotation mark with an em dash and the action or thought and then another em dash. Resume the dialogue with another opening quotation mark, complete the dialogue, and end with a period and a closing quotation mark. There are no spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the dashes and the action/thought.

Thus the spoken words are within quotation marks and the action or thought is set off by the dashes.

“He loved you”—she pounded the wall with a heavy fist—“but you never cared.”

“He loved you”—at least she thought he had—“but you never cared.”

Compare this to a similar construction without dialogue:

He’d forgotten all about me—my heart ached at the thought—but I’d never forgotten him.


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Quote within dialogue
A character may be speaking and also quoting what someone else has said. Punctuation is necessary to indicate the difference between what the character is quoting and what are his own words.

The entirety of what a character says is enclosed by double quotation marks. The part the character is quoting from another person is enclosed by single quotation marks.

When single and double quotation marks are side by side, put a space between them.

“He said, and I quote, ‘The mailman loves you.’ ”

“He said, ‘The mailman loves you.’ I heard it with my own ears.”

Indirect dialogue for the inner quote would also work.

“He said the mailman loves you. I heard it with my own ears.”

Direct and indirect dialogue emphasize different elements of the sentence, so choose the one that works best for what you want to convey.

Dialogue abruptly cut off
When dialogue is cut off—the character is being choked or something suddenly diverts his attention or another character interrupts him—use an em dash before the closing quotation mark. Dialogue can be interrupted mid-word or at the end of a word. Consider the sounds of words and syllables before deciding where to break the interrupted word: you wouldn’t break the word there after the T (t—), because the first sound comes from the combined th (th—).

“He loved y—“

Dialogue abruptly cut off by another speaker
When a second speaker interrupts the first, use the em dash where the first speaker’s words are interrupted and again where they resume.

“He loved you—”

“As if I could believe that.”

“—for such a long, long time.”

Dialogue that trails off
When dialogue trails off—the character has lost his train of thought or doesn’t know what to say—use the ellipsis.

“He loved you . . .” A long, long time ago, she thought.

Names in dialogue
Always use a comma before and/or after the name when addressing someone directly in dialogue (even if the name isn’t a proper name).

“He loved you, Emma.”

“Emma, he loved you.”

“He loved you, honey.”

“He loved you, Emma, more than he loved Sally.”

Multiple lines of dialogue
For a paragraph with several sentences of dialogue, put the dialogue tag, if you use one, at the end of the first sentence. The tags are for readers, to keep track of the speaker. A tag lost in the middle or hiding at the end of the paragraph doesn’t help the reader at the top of the paragraph.

This is not an absolute rule, of course. Sometimes the feel or rhythm requires a different construction. But you can use this rule to keep your readers on track. If a group of guys is talking, the reader might guess who is speaking, but there’s nothing wrong with helping out the reader.

“I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game. He wasn’t sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank God I don’t have to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I want. Yep, freedom,” Maxwell said. “Nothing beats freedom.”

“I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game,” Maxwell said. “He wasn’t sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank God I don’t have to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I want. Yep, freedom. Nothing beats freedom.”

Multiple paragraphs of dialogue
Dialogue may stretch across paragraphs without pause. To punctuate, put a terminal punctuation—period, question mark, or exclamation point— at the end of the first paragraph. There is no closing quotation mark at the end of this paragraph.

Begin the next paragraph with an opening quotation mark.

Follow this pattern for as long as the dialogue and paragraphs continue. At the last paragraph, use a closing quotation mark at the end of the dialogue.

“He was my best friend. I told you that, didn’t I? And then he stabbed me in the back. Stole my wife and my future. I hated him for that. Still do. Hate him bad.

“But he’s been punished, yes he has. He went to jail for embezzling thousands. Not even millions. Just thousands. Serves him right, the petty crook. He’s just a petty man.”

Changing Speakers
Begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.

She looked up at the man hovering over her. “I’d wanted to tell you for years. I just didn’t know what to say.”

“We’ve been married for thirty-four years, Alice. You couldn’t find a way, in thirty-four years of living together and seeing each other sixteen hours a day, to tell me you were already married?”

“I’m sorry.”

Exception. There are reasons having to do with style when you could limit a back-and-forth dialogue between characters to a single paragraph, but each speaker’s sentences would need to be brief and you wouldn’t want the paragraph to go on for too long. Keep in mind your readers’ expectations—they expect to find only one character’s words in a paragraph.

Mixing dialogue with narration in the same paragraph
Dialogue and narration can be placed into the same paragraph. If the narration refers to a single character or is in the point of view of only one character, simply add the dialogue. Dialogue can go at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the paragraph and the narration.

If the narration refers to several characters or you can’t tell which character is the focus of the paragraph, begin the dialogue with a new paragraph and a dialogue tag. That is, don’t make the reader guess who is speaking.

If the paragraph opens with a wide view of a group of people but then the focus narrows to a single character, you could introduce that character’s dialogue into the end of that same paragraph. Or, you could begin a new paragraph with the dialogue. The key is to keep the reader in the flow of the story. Confusion over dialogue will pull the reader out of the fictional world.

Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. And at forty-two, she decided she was just entering her prime. She stared at herself in the mirror, patted her hair, and grinned at the man watching her reflection with her. “I still got it, don’t I, baby?”

He reached for her bare shoulders. “And I love every inch of the it you’ve got.”

Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see herself as the ingenue. Carl wanted to tell her she was now more femme fatale than ingenue. And that was all right by him.

“I still got it, don’t I, baby?” she asked his reflection.

“More than ever, honey.”

Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see herself as the ingenue. “You’re stunning, sweetheart,” Carl said, pausing by the dressing table.  He wanted to tell her she was now more femme fatale than ingenue, that she turned him on more than she had as a younger version of herself. But Rachael was not only beautiful. She was touchy. And being reminded of her age wouldn’t keep her happy.

Carl was all about keeping Rachael happy.

“Simply stunning,” he said again


Attributions can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To hide them, put them at the middle or end of sentences. You will typically—but not always—want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.


A reader asked a few questions about this topic that are answered in the article, More Punctuation in Dialogue.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation

251 Responses to “Punctuation in Dialogue”

  1. Kitty says:

    This has really helped me. See, I’m working on a book, and there was a lot of questions that have been bugging me about what I do after dialogue. So, thank you!

    • In the section title “Dialogue interrupted by action or thought but no dialogue tag,” you made this comment: * The quotation marks before but in both sentences should curl the other way. I’ve been unable to edit this to make them go the correct way. If you would have made a space after the dash, it would have gone the right way, and then you’d have to go back and eliminate the space. I see this problem with slang dialogue too. Like a character says ’cause instead of because. The apostrophe is curling the wrong direction. So what I do is type b’cause and the go back and delete the b. It’s a hassle, but at least the punctuation mark is curling the correct way.

  2. Glad to be of help.

    I’m always looking for new topics, so if there’s something you’d like to see covered, please let me know. Or, if there’s anything I left out of this article on punctuation in dialogue and you have a question, please feel free to ask.

    • Okay, I am writing a novel and I have been reading Dorris Lessing and Henry Miller. Both use multiple characters with dialogue in the same paragraph. Lessing often introduces them with a Semi-colon. I very much like what they are doing, but I don’t feel confident about my choices to do that in my own writing. And now I have this problem. I am writing some paragraphs in which a person is overhearing or taking in remarks from others. If I give them all a paragraph it feels like it gives them too much importance and makes them kind of stronger characters in the story. But I don’t want them in the story, they are a crowd of people, and I want the character to feel the general sentiment of the crowd.

      He sat on the rooftop listening to them speak to the police. “He went that way,” the girl said. “He was fat,” another stated. “And ugly,” said another. “It was the most awful thing in the world.” “You should kill him.”

      Anyway, this is just an example. Could you talk about both of these situations.

    • Hi Beth,
      I was wondering if a comma is always required after the word “said” following dialogue. For example, “I have to eat fifty eggs,” he said, jokingly. I think a comma is required after that “said.” But in this example, “No it sure doesn’t,” I said, as I walked out the door. Is that comma after “said” correct?

      • Rhett, the quick answer is no, a comma isn’t always required after said. It depends on what else follows.

        Usually there’s no comma between said and a modifying adverb.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said reverently.

        Usually there’s no comma when there’s an explanation of the way the dialogue was spoken.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said with emotion.

        As is sometimes preceded by a comma and sometimes not.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said as she brushed the baby’s hair.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, as I suspected she would.

        We usually use a comma if an independent clause follows the dialogue tag.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, and I was happy to hear the joy in her voice.

        We usually use a comma if a present participle or participial phrase follows the tag.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, wrapping her arms around the baby.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, sighing.

        We do use a comma after an absolute phrase.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, her hands waving in the air.

        Some writers use a comma if they tack a second action on after the tag without repeating or adding a new subject, but some don’t. Bill Walsh reminds us that we shouldn’t actually add a second action after a dialogue tag anyway, but fiction writers do it all the time. However, this particular construction can be more acceptable for some sentences than others.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said and covered the baby with a blanket.

        “He’s so sweet,” she said, and covered the baby with a blanket.


        Off the top of my head, I can’t think of too many other options, but let me know if you’ve got another option in mind. I hope this helps.

    • Emil says:


      Sorry to reply to this specific comment, but I didn’t see a comment option. In your examples all the questions are quoted, so it makes sense to write the punctuation like this. But, does it apply as well when the quotes are missing?

      What I mean, when you have a dialogue line:
      Instead of:
      “I still got it, don’t I, baby?” she asked his reflection.
      you have:
      – I still got it, don’t I, baby? she asked his reflection.
      Without the quotes you have a small capital letter in the middle of the sentence. How do you handle this way of writing?

      I apologize for any mistake, I am not a native speaker.


  3. Vivian A says:

    Thanks for the clarifications, Beth. I need reminders every so often and your articles are a great resource. Honestly, punctuation tends to be my wild west category while writing. Sometimes things are just fine and then, BAM! Commas usual lead the rebellion popping up in all sorts of places.

  4. Vivian, I love the image of commas leading a rebellion. They do have minds of their own.

  5. Jesse says:


    I’m presently wrtining my tenth full-length novel, and while I’ve sometimes overruled dubious grammar ‘rules’ in my previous nine, I have been unable to find an authoritative source for the following query, which involes putting a comma after ‘and.’ For example:

    “Where’s the nearest airport, Nate?
    “Nantes, and I think it’s roughly an eighty-five-mile drive from Saumur.”

    Every grammar book, as well as Microsoft Word, tells me that I may not put a comma after ‘Nantes’ and before ‘and.’ I disagree, and while I could reword the sentence, I don’t want to because it’s only an example of one of many that cannot be reworded to my satisfaction.

    What’s your opinon?

    Thank you in advance for your time and attention.


    • Jesse says:

      Please excuse my spelling errors. I’m in-between computers at the moment (sticky keys) and have vision problems too, and the text in your reply box is a little too small for me to see properly. – Jess.

  6. Jesse says:

    Afternoon again!

    Another American English query, if you wouldn’t mind (it is not my first language).

    Again, in dialogue, another ‘rule’ than confuses me is demonstrated in the following sentence(s).

    “Why not leave it on the counter? You know you’ll only want it later.”
    “Why not leave it on the counter? you know you’ll only want it later.”

    I’ve seen similarly structured sentences in what one would normally consider classic novels – both ways. What’s your take on this?

    Also (might as well get it over with), why must I put a semicolon where I’m about to?

    “Why not leave it on the counter, Bob; you know you’ll only want it later?”

    In the first place, I dislike semicolons, especially in dialogue, and feel that a comma after Bob’s name should suffice. I don’t want two short, choppy sentences when I can have one.

    TIA – Jesse.

  7. Hi, Jesse. Congrats on being on the 10th novel. That’s a milestone worth celebrating.

    Let’s look at your questions.

    For the first, there’s nothing wrong with a comma after Nantes. Yet, because it’s a single word answer followed by a longer independent clause, I’d consider using a period instead. A period is a stronger separator and would frame the answer to the question—Nantes—before the speaker adds more information. “Nantes. And I think it’s roughly a…” For impact, let Nantes stand alone as the answer to the question. But there’s nothing wrong with the comma as the sentence is written. It would be wrong without a comma.

    Questions two and three—If you use the question mark as you have, it’s a terminal punctuation point. What comes after it begins a new sentence, so that new sentence begins with a capital letter. (An exception to the capital letter after a question mark comes with dialogue followed by a dialogue tag. “How old are you?” she asked.). As for reading such a construction in the classics, consider when they were written. We definitely have different rules for modern writers. But two sentences? Two capital letters.

    “Why not leave it on the counter? You know you’ll only want it later.” is correct. (Question mark, two sentences, capital letter)

    “Why not leave it on the counter; you know you’ll only want it later.” is also correct. (Semi-colon, two independent clauses, no capital letter, no question mark)

    “Why not leave it on the counter, Bob? You know you’ll only want it later.” is correct as well.

    “Why not leave it on the counter, Bob; you know you’ll only want it later.” is another correct one. (no question mark at the end because that last clause is not a question)

    But, “Why not leave it on the counter, Bob, you know you’ll only want it later.” is a comma splice. Two independent clauses need a separator stronger than a simple comma. The semi-colon alerts the reader that what follows is a related clause, but one that could stand on its own as a sentence.

    The rule is, you can’t separate/join two sentences with only a comma. You need a period or a semi-colon or a dash. Or, you use a coordinating conjunction with a comma. Or, you reword the sentence so that one of the independent clauses becomes a dependent one.

    None of the coordinating conjunctions really work here, though you could make a case for for. But you could change one of the clauses to a dependent one—“Since you’ll only want it later, Bob, why not leave it on the counter?”

    Also, in this sentence, if you used only commas, the reader would have trouble knowing which clause Bob belonged with. The reader would have to stop to figure out the meaning. And you don’t want to confuse the reader.

    Does that help?

  8. Wow, that was longer than I thought. Sorry, Jesse. I’ll look into the size of the text and the size of the reply box. I’m sure I can make both larger.

    • Jesse says:

      Afternoon Beth!

      Thank you so much for your prompt response, and yes,it is helpful. I’m particularly surprised to learn that one does not require a question mark in this sentence:

      “Why not leave it on the counter; you know you’ll only want it later.” is also correct. (Semi-colon, two independent clauses, no capital letter, no question mark.)

      I didn’t know that. I thank the Good Lord that most people read at a seventh-grade level and my occasional departures from grammar ‘laws’ have not impeded the sales of my novels!

      I love what you’ve done with your comment box (regarding text size), we’re not all twenty-one anymore and a larger text size makes it simpler for those of us who’ve achieved ‘Grandma’ status to see what we’re saying. (All the better to see you with, my dear, and all that, LOL!) It was kind of you to make the change, so again, thanks a lot.

      As an aside, I prefer not to begin too many sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ (hence the comma after Nantes), although I do use them both as a tool when I want to emphasize something.

      I like your blog, Beth, and if I’m spared, I’ve no doubt that I’ll be back.

      Have a spectacular day, and Godbless.


  9. Jesse, I look forward to seeing you any time you visit.

    I suggested no question mark on the end of that one sentence—Why not leave it on the counter; you know you’ll only want it later.—because the entire sentence isn’t a question. Thus, it doesn’t get a question mark as a terminal mark.

    I should mention here, for other readers, that I included the periods from the quoted sentences in the middle of my explanations only so I didn’t confuse Jesse about whether to include or not include the periods. We don’t typically include terminal punctuation marks that way in the middle of sentences. I also didn’t include standard punctuation within the parentheses in my explanations.

  10. Nick Daws says:

    Excellent article – I’ve shared it via Twitter and Facebook.

    I wondered what you thought about using two ellipses to indicate a pause in mid-speech rather than dashes. Something like this, maybe:

    “He loved you …” she twisted a strand of hair around her fingers ”… but you never cared.”

    I saw this recently in a published novel and it struck me as unusual, but not necessarily wrong. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

  11. Terry, I’d like to address your questions in an article of its own, if that’s okay with you. I’m sure I’ll need some space for that one. I’ll link here when I post.

  12. Nick, I’ve probably seen that same construction. I think there are quite likely dozens of ways that writers have interrupted dialogue.

    The problem with the ellipsis construction, especially with it inside the quotation marks, is that an ellipsis gives the impression that the speaker’s words have trailed off when that’s not always what’s happened. With speech that has trailed off, an ellipsis to end the dialogue plus a closing quotation mark and a new sentence seem to work well.

    “He loved you . . .” She twisted a strand of hair around her fingers. “But you never cared.”

    The emphasis here is on the hesitation in her speech. The reader begins to wonder why she’s hesitant. And the action of winding hair around her finger adds to the hesitation.

    Without the ellipsis, there’s little chance the reader will think that the character is hesitating.

    Also, the em dash is used for setting off digressions or descriptive elements, which is really what this construction is about. Without them, without that clear break, the reader could become confused. With no markers such as punctuation and capital letters, the sentences are hard to follow.

    She’d wanted to go to Moscow for years—her dad had always nixed her plans, certain she’d be robbed or kidnapped before she stepped out of the airport—but now the trip was imperative.

    “I’ve wanted to go to Moscow for years”—she could still hear her dad’s worry-words telling her what a bad idea that was—“but now the trip is imperative.”

    “I’ve wanted to go to Moscow for years . . .” she could still hear her dad’s worry-words telling her what a bad idea that was ” . . . but now the trip is imperative.”

    In the example without the dashes, the digression is set off by nothing; it just floats in the sentence. Dashes help frame it.

    Could you use the elliptical construction? We’ve seen it done. Yet we want to make our meaning clear to the reader. If they understand how an em dash sets off digressions in the middle of a sentence, why not use that format for dialogue as well?

    • Nick Daws says:

      Thanks, Beth. That’s an interesting way of looking at it.

      I agree, the version with dashes is better in many respects. Although, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, you could argue that the version with two ellipses could signify a longer, more significant mid-sentence pause than the version with the dashes.

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the trouble to provide such a detailed and thoughtful reply.


  13. Nick, you are most welcome. Conversations about writing are fun.

  14. Terry, the response to your questions is at More Punctuation in Dialogue

  15. When you have one character telling another a story and quoting long passages of dialogue, do you use a double and single quote every time you go from dialogue to narrative? Even if it’s just to say, “he said.”

  16. Pepper, do you mean one character is speaking but he’s also quoting someone else? If it’s direct quote, it should still be in double and single quotation marks—double marks for the character’s words, single for the words he’s quoting. If the character is paraphrasing, only use the double quotation marks. But I can’t imagine that you’d want to have a character speaking dialogue while quoting someone else for a long passage.

    An example…
    “Hey, William, you remember what Miss Ethel told us? She always said, ‘Do it ever right the first time boys. Do it ever right.’ ” John wiped sweat from his eyes. “I guess this counts as doing it ever right.”

    John’s words are in double quotation marks. Miss Ethel’s, quoted by him, are in single quotation marks. The rest of the narrative doesn’t need quotation marks.

    If you want to paraphrase, you wouldn’t need the single quotation marks.

    “Hey, William, you remember what Miss Ethel told us, how she always said to do it ever right the first time?” John wiped sweat from his eyes. “I guess this counts as doing it ever right.”

    If John is simply talking to William and not quoting someone else, even if he’s telling a story, you only need the double quotation marks to indicate his speech. Quotation marks for dialogue and no marks for anything else.

    Does that answer your question?

  17. Keya says:

    I had a question about: Mixing dialogue with narration in the same paragraph.

    for example: “Who said that?” Mrs. Hopkins searched through each row with her brown eyes. “Who wants to stay after school with me today. I have all the time in the world.” Seth hides behind his backpack, out of Mrs. Hopkins view.

    see how i added another character actions, in the end. If that proper? or is it another way i should go about writing it.

  18. Keya, while it’s perfectly acceptable to mix dialogue with narration, in the example you presented, I would recommend a new paragraph for Seth.

    If Mrs. Hopkins was performing an action, then you wouldn’t need to begin a new paragraph. But Seth is a different character, so to keep his actions separate from her dialogue and her actions, begin a new paragraph.

    I’m not suggesting that you have to separate the actions of every character into their own paragraph, but because Mrs. Hopkins had dialogue and action, this paragraph pretty much belongs to her. Readers could be easily confused by adding Seth’s actions. The following, however, would work well to give one paragraph the actions of several characters.

    The boys in the back row were restless, Seth hid behind his backpack, and Mrs. Hopkins searched each row with her brown eyes.

    For your example, I’d go with:
    “Who said that?” Mrs. Hopkins searched through each row with her brown eyes. “Who wants to stay after school with me today. I have all the time in the world.”

    Seth hid behind his backpack, out of Mrs. Hopkins view.

    This construction allows Seth’s action to stand out and tells the reader we’re dealing with someone other than Mrs. Hopkins.

    I hope this helps.

  19. keya says:

    Do you have a blog on showing emotions in writing?

  20. Keya, I’ve got a couple of articles on emotion. Try Creating Emotion in the Reader first. It has a link to another of my articles in it.

  21. Pat Bertram says:

    Hi, Beth. Here is how I solve the problem of a wrong facing quotation mark after an em dash, though I don’t know if the same solution will work on your blog (since I’m sure you’ve already tried it): I add a space after the wrong quotation mark, put in the new mark, then backspace to the dash. There is no other way of doing it that I know of.

  22. It works in Word, but I can’t get it to work here, Pat. But there have been lots of changes to the setup since I tried, so maybe I can try again. Thanks for the reminder.

  23. I wonder if anyone can clarify something forme ?

    When writing dialogue, should one use a period or a comma when opening, for example;

    He said.”I have no idea.”
    He said,”I have no idea.”

    What are the rules for periods and commas in this situation? : )

  24. Deborah, I can clarify that for you. Use the comma. You might have missed the example in the article—

    Single line with dialogue tag first
    The comma still separates the dialogue tag from the spoken words, but it is outside the quotation marks, and the period is inside the quotation marks.

    She said, “He loved you.”

  25. Dan says:

    Ok, question.

    Helping proofread and keep coming across an issue I can’t adequately find an answer to…

    “Look, Phil,” I said to my driver, “There’s that bicycle you mentioned.”

    Is ‘there’s’ capitalized or not. It’s not clear whether the first portion of the dialogue is its own statement. I’ve come across a few of these in the writing and none are cut and dried that the first segment should have a period or not…and I can’t contact the author at the moment to get her insight into what she had intended.

  26. Dan, you’re right to questions this one. The comma after driver and the capital T definitely don’t go together.

    To decide which is correct, the comma or the capital letter, consider the dialogue without the tag—

    “Look, Phil. There’s that bicycle you mentioned.”

    Here we have a period after Phil and a capital T for there’s, indicating two sentences. So, with the dialogue tag—
    “Look, Phil,” I said to my driver. “There’s that bicycle you mentioned.”

    These, slightly different, are also correct—

    “Phil,” I said to my driver, “there’s that bicycle you mentioned.”

    “Look,” I said to my driver. “There’s that bicycle you mentioned.”

  27. Christine says:

    I was hoping you could tell me which sentence is correct. :)

    “Althought these”—she looked at the row of beeswax sculptures”—don’t meet the criteria for art.”


    “Althought these”—she looked at the row of beeswax sculptures—”don’t meet the criteria for art.”

  28. Christine, go with the second option. Let the quotation marks enclose her words and the dashes set off her actions.

    As Nick noted in one of the earlier comments, some writers have used other options. But this definitely works and gets across both the action and the dialogue with little fuss.

    However, since the dashes do stand out, I recommend you don’t overuse this construction.

    • I’ve been looking for an answer to this question for ages. Your solution has some difficulties for me, however. Since the em-dash is meant to indicate speech (not action) that is cut off, shouldn’t the first dash go before the 1st set of closing quotation marks? And I note that the opening marks in the second quote are backwards–which Word vexingly does. Would this work better? “Although these–” she looked at the row of beeswax sculptures “–don’t meet the criteria for art.” I believe this was the solution of the very first commenter here.

      • M. S., check this one out in Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) in 6.84. It’s the last example they give. (I don’t know that they ever had an example of this construction in earlier editions.)

        Think of this as setting off the words that aren’t dialogue rather than interrupting the dialogue. That might help you visualize how it should look.

        For your example, you could have either—

        “Although these”—she looked at the row of beeswax sculptures—“don’t meet the criteria for art.”


        “Although these . . .” She looked at the row of beeswax sculptures. ” . . . don’t meet the criteria for art.”

        As for the backward quotation marks—there is a way around them in Word. Unfortunately, I can’t do that same thing here in WordPress. Or at least I’ve not yet figured out how.

        I hope this helps.

  29. Thanks for this, it’s really useful. I have big problems knowing when to use a capital letter for Mum, Dad, etc. What are the rules? Thanks.

  30. Hi, Alison.

    When mum or dad or grandpa and similar words are used as names, whether in dialogue or narration, capitalize those words. Otherwise, they are just nouns and get no capital letter. If they are preceded by my or your (his, her, their, or our), don’t capitalize them.


    I swear my mum can get lost between my house and hers. She was calling, from some road I didn’t recognize by name, and asking for directions.

    “Elle, just tell me left or right at the next intersection.”

    “That’s just it, Mum. I don’t know where you are and what intersection is coming up.”

    The phone rang with silence. Then she said, “You mean you’ve forgotten how to get to your own house?”

    I beat my head against the wall. I wouldn’t wish my mother on anyone.


    I hope this helps.

  31. Nancy LeBrun says:

    My question is about taglines. In the following taglines, should I use a comma before the word “as”?
    “Now you have to watch the snowboarding competition with me,” I demanded, as I dragged hm onto the couch.

    “Megan, come with us,” Lily said, as she grabbed Megan’s hand.

  32. Nancy, the short answer is no comma for either of your examples. But this is a great question, one I’d like to get into with an article. I’ll post a link here when I’ve got it ready.

    Some uses of as would require a comma, however, such as—
    “Yes, yes, yes,” she said, as was her way.

  33. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Okay, here is another sentence that makes me crazy because I can’t decide if I should use a comma or a semi-colon. Technically, it is 2 sentences without a connector.
    “Come on, let’s go.” or should it be “Come on; let’s go.”

    • If this is two commands, then yes, it’s also two sentences and you could use a semicolon. But you do have some leeway with that construction. Remember I came, I saw, I conquered. You can override the rules with short sentenes with related clauses.

      You could also look at come on as an interjection rather than a command, and that means either a comma or a period. I can’t imagine anyone recommending a semicolon in this sentence. It would be stilted and fussy.

  34. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Oh, and here is another word that leaves me unsure….the word ‘due’. Is it considered a dependant marker? Here’s an example:
    “Wes and I are coming back to apartment to stay there for the night due to unexpected troubles from Stef’s sister.”
    Should there be a comma after the word ‘night’?

    • Yes, due to used here is a subordinating conjunction in the manner of because and since and as. Since it comes at the end of the sentence, it gets no comma. Had you said—Due to unexpected troubles from Stef’s sister, Wes and I are going back to the apartment—then you would need the comma.

  35. Nancy LeBruh says:

    Going back to the post with the 2 short sentences and whether to use a comma or a semi-colon. Here is another example:
    He shook his head. “You’re crazy, you know that?” or should it be “You’re crazy; you know that?”

    • Comma for this one.

      This sentence is a tag question. It turns a statement into a question. It’s often used to elicit agreement or disagreement or some kind of reply, but sometimes it’s rhetorical. You’ll see questions such as You just had to do that, didn’t you? and She’d fallen in the lake again, hadn’t she? and You know she’s only looking for sympathy, right? and You think I’m crazy, do you?

  36. Nancy LeBrun says:

    And here is yet another one. “I called you because I was hoping that you and Omino—I’m sorry; I mean you and Gavin are doing well.”

    After “I’m Sorry,” Should there be a comma or a semi-colon?

  37. Nancy LeBrun says:

    In the following sentence, it seems that a comma is required, but my computer advises me to put in the word “and.” I don’t want to do that. So how should I puntuate the sentence then?

    He came up smiling, then cllimbed on top of me.

    comma or semi-colon? In the second part of the sentence, there is no subject. “He” is implied, so, technically it is not a separate sentence.

  38. Nancy LeBrun says:

    I hate to keep picking your brain, but you are an incredible help to me. My next question is abou tthe word “now.” Are these sentences correct?

    “Are you ready to go now?”
    “Are you happy, now?”

  39. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Okay, now I am told that “since” is a dependant marker, but I have seen sentences whre a phrase beginning with “since” has that comma before it. How do I know when to use a comma?
    In this sentence:
    Tuesday morning, Wes slept in, since he had the day off.
    It seems to me that a comma should be there. Yes?

    • G’day Nancy,

      I’m Australian and I’ve learned US grammar usage is sometimes different to Australia and the UK. However, in the sentence you have I’d write it as:

      Tuesday morning Wes slept in, since he had the day off.

      This is because ‘Tuesday morning is the time identifier for what Wes did. The comma is need before the word since in this case because what comes after the comma is an extension and explanation of Wes sleeping in . One thing I was taught that often helps with this situation is if you can replace the word ‘since’ with ‘because’ and still make the same meaning to the sentence then it should have a comma – this sometimes works by using the word ‘but’ as well – if it is the type of expansion but will work well in.

      With your question on the word ‘now’ using a comma makes it a split-off fragment and changes the empahsis, how it changes it depends on what goes before it. In the ‘ready’ example the word now is a basic time identifier, in the ‘happy’ example the comma changes the situation and adds more emphasis to the word ‘now’ – kind of like the speaker is exasperated with the other person.

      Also, on your earlier question on commas and semi-colons, I was taught you only use the semi-colon when joining sentences together to make a more complex sentence or as a divider for a complex list in a sentence where the use of the comma can cause confusion as to what part of the list something is in.



  40. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Oops. I had one more with the word “since”.
    “Hey, is your girlfriend still there?” I said, referring to Lily, since I assumed he was home by now.
    There should be a comma after “Lily” because the phrase “referring to Lily” is not needed to complete the sentence and should be set off by commas. Is that correct?

  41. Commas will be the death of me.

    In this sentence: “Take your clothes off–but do it slowly.” I can’t make a long dash on this site, but that’s what it is. Should there be a comma after the word “off”, or is it unecessary due to the pause created by the dash?

    In this sentence: “Take me then,” I said innocently.
    Should there be a comma after the word “me”?

  42. Nancy LeBrun says:

    This is a question about how to handle song titles and lyrics. Consider the following sentence: He slid the dial and stopped on a song called ‘Lucky Man’ by Emerson, Lake, Palmer. Should Lucky Man be in single quotes, double quotes, or Italics?

    This one has lyrics: I didn’t know the name or the singer, but I knew the song lyrics: “I’ll–be–your crying shoulder…” Again should these lyrics be in single quotes, double quotes or italics?

  43. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Back to quotations.In the following sentence, should “baby” be in single quotes, double quotes or in Italics?
    “I’m sorry, baby.” The ‘baby’ reference went right through me.

  44. Nancy, I haven’t forgotten you. I may put these together in one article and answer them for you.

    • Nancy LeBrun says:


      I wanted you to know that I’ve been trying to self publish my book, and although I have learned A LOT about punctuation along the way, commas and semi-colons still mystify me because the rules are often broken, and quite often I don’t know why. I published the first book last year, and to be truthful, I’m almost afraid to pick it up and read it for fear that I will see a ton of gramatical errors. Most readers probably wouldn’t even notice, but I am hoping that by the end of the series, I’ll know my stuff. You are a great help. Thank you for your patience with me.- NL

  45. Nancy LeBrun says:

    This sentence left me baffled:
    Just one more day to get through and it would be just him and me for four days.
    Do I need a comma after the word “through”? Why or why not?

  46. Nancy LeBrun says:

    Quotation marks. Single vs. double. Is this correct? All quotes after the period or single quotation after the period. Or should I not use the single quotes at all? Maybe Italics instead?
    “If it makes you feel and better, Gavin refers to you as ‘my boyfriend.'”

  47. Cass says:

    Hi Again!
    You probably already addressed this question but I am double checking just in case I missed something … when you don’t have a dialogue tag, you use a period and when you do, you use a comma. Am I correct?
    Sorry if this seems like a very silly question but I want to write my story as correct as possible.

    Thanks so much!

  48. W.E. Larson says:

    Wonderful post!

    To fix your smart quotes problem, edit the post in HTML mode and replace the quote that WordPress is getting wrong with “ for an opening quote and ” for a closing quote.

    i.e. “He loved you”–at least she thought he had–”but you never cared.” becomes “He loved you”–at least she thought he had–“but you never cared.”

    • W.E. Larson says:

      It helps if I escape my codes so they don’t get converted.

      To fix your smart quotes problem, edit the post in HTML mode and replace the quote that WordPress is getting wrong with “ for an opening quote and ” for a closing quote.

      i.e. “He loved you”–at least she thought he had–”but you never cared.” becomes “He loved you”–at least she thought he had–“but you never cared.”

  49. W. E., I think I love you. Thank you so very much. I never thought of looking for an HTML code.

  50. Andrew Nest says:

    I want to know if all the following sentences are acceptable and what style you would prefer. i know the first one is correct, but do we need to say ‘he said’ if it is obvious. Can anyone help me?

    1. “You must be crazy,” he said, and (he) laughed again.
    2. “You must be crazy,” and (he) laughed again.
    3. “You must be crazy.” And he laughed again.
    4. “You must be crazy.” He laughed again.

  51. A good question, Andrew. I’ve seen sentences like each of those you listed here.

    First off, you’re right; you don’t need to say “he said” if it’s clear who’s speaking. Yet sometimes you might want the attribution for rhythm or balance.

    Numbers one and four are correct. In a separate issue, in number one, if you use the he before laughed, I’d use a comma after said. Otherwise you don’t need the comma after said.

    Two is incorrect because what comes after the comma should be a dialogue tag. If there’s no tag (and no action set off by em dashes), then crazy should be followed by a period rather than a comma.

    Two and three are also both incorrect because the ands don’t join anything—but for number three, we don’t necessarily have all the information. Three would work if it said something such as He laughed. “You must be crazy.” And then he laughed again. In this example, and actually joins two actions, as it did in the first example with him both saying and laughing.

    If you don’t want to say “he said,” you have a couple choices—

    “You must be crazy.” He laughed again.
    He laughed. “You must be crazy.” And then he laughed again.

    Will these work for your needs?

  52. Great article. Answered the question I was looking for an answer to, as I’m typesetting a friend’s novel.

    Just thought I’d point out a small typo that caught my eye.

    In the section where you write:

    Dialogue abruptly cut off by another speaker
    When a second speaker interrupts the first, use the em dash where the first speaker’s words are interrupted and again where they resume.

    “He loved you—”

    “As if I could belive that.”

    “—for such a long, long time.”


    It should be “As if I could believe that.”

  53. Gavin, I’m glad you found what you were looking for and thanks for the tip on the typo—I definitely don’t like typos in my articles.

  54. Tom says:

    This is very helpful. I was particularly interested the single quote followed by the double quotes. Personally, I struggle with the space between the single and double quotes. I’ve read on the Internet there isn’t a clear rule on this. Some sites offer no space between the single and double quotes. One of the problems is Word can break this space between the two and I tend to think it looks bad. Am I right, this one is open to debate? I know one could put a fixed space between the two.

  55. Tom, it is indeed open to debate. Most publishers will print with a space there, but it’s typically smaller than a normal space.

    The reason I recommend the space for manuscripts is to make the read easy on agents and publishers. You don’t want them having to guess whether or not you’ve included both the single and the double quotation marks. You also don’t want the punctuation to look like a blob. The space shows both quotation marks for what they are.

    Chicago Manual of Style calls the use of a space in this instance a “typographical nicety.” I look at it much the same way. Anything to make the read easier.

    But yes, I’d recommend a non-breaking space, the same you’d use in an ellipsis. The keys for a non-breaking space are Ctrl—Shift—Space.

    A great question. Thanks for asking it.

    If a publisher or agent either requires the space or asks that you not use it, of course you’d follow their guidelines. Otherwise you have leeway.

  56. kit kat says:

    Im a 6th grader and im working on a paper so this really helped thx for the help.

  57. Kit Kat, good luck on the paper. I’m glad you found something to help you here.

  58. Hi Beth,

    I find your blog so helpful! An input question, if you don’t mind:

    I’m an American editing for a British publisher who follow the common British practice of using spaced en dashes for parenthetical usage and closed em dashes for interruptions. In a situation where dialogue is interrupted with an action, I’m unsure of which method to follow. I assume spaced en, but it looks bizarre to me.

    ‘And since when did you eat’ – I held up a fast-food wrapper between finger and thumb. It dripped – ‘this kind of stuff?’

    What do you think? I have a lot of input to the style sheet so this is something I’d like to establish for their future edits. Do you think we could get away with using closed em in these situations even though the same construction outside of dialogue would get spaced en, or would that appear inconsistent?

    Thanks for any input you’re willing to offer!

    • G’day Rachel,

      Sorry I’m so late joining in on this, and not sure how I missed it back when you first posted it or why I got an alert on it today. However, I’m an Aussie and was taught the UK version of grammar and spelling. What I was taught was the use of the ellipsis for a breaking off of dialogue in a trailing manner, kind of like when your voice lowers because you just thought of something. In the example you gave that is not a breaking off of the dialogue but an insertion of an action into the dialogue and thus a comma is all that’s need at each end. The en dash is often used to show a break off of the action or narration, but not for the dialogue.

      It is possible the powers that be may have changed the style manual since I was taught that back in the 1960s, but that’s how I use and how a few high school English teachers I know still teach it down here. Of course, you may very well have an industry or company style manual you need to abide by which will override this.



  59. Rachel, you made me think with this one. I’ve not seen anything hard and fast for British English regarding this issue.

    My first response is to tell you to be consistent, meaning use the en dash with spaces.

    Yet, while everyone uses em dashes for interruptions (it’s pretty much a standard rule), for parentheticals, you have a choice. Your publisher made the choice to go with en dashes and spaces, but it’s not an iron-clad rule.

    Thus you could make the same kind of decision for the interruption of dialogue; it would be simply a style decision and neither the adherence to nor the bucking of a rule. As long as you were consistent with the usage, I don’t think you’d have a problem defending your stance.

    Plus, who’s to say whether the action dividing the dialogue is a parenthetical break or the dialogue is interrupted by the action? Again, you could easily argue either side.

    In Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman, there’s an example from A Suitable Boy, a book by Vikram Seth. The punctuation is BrE and the action that interrupts the dialogue is set off by em dashes, no spaces, just as you’d like to do it. You could always check out other books, but because this is not an absolute, I’m guessing you’ll find examples of both.

    There are already going to be both en dashes with spaces and em dashes without them in your books, so you wouldn’t be adding an extra option, just choosing from the two you already have. Another argument for either choice.

    I do advise you to check the New Oxford Style Manual or Hart’s Rules, just to see what they have to say (I don’t have either, otherwise I’d check for you). But there’s no clear prohibition that I know of, so I think you’re safe to push for the option you prefer. Thus my second, considered, response is that you go for the em dash without spaces.

    If anyone else has an opinion or a reference for us, please speak up. And, Rachel, let me know if you find a specific rule for this. I’m guessing there isn’t one, but you never know.

    • Thanks so much, Beth! I do have Hart’s/New Oxford Style (my Bible these days) but unfortunately they don’t give an example for dialogue interrupted by action (Chicago is much more thorough, in SO many ways!). To make it even more hazy, Oxford uses closed-up em dashes, so although there is a notation that ‘other British publishers use the en rule with space either side’, all of their examples for parenthetical _and_ interruption are given with closed-up ems.

      It’s great to know I’m not alone in thinking an argument could be made for action breaking dialogue qualifying as either an aside or an interruption. I agree it doesn’t appear to be a rule by any BrE standard and will be up to style preference.

      For me, the spaced ens highlight the lack of a comma before the first closing quote, making it look like a typo, whereas the closed-up ems draw your attention to the break, which is the intended purpose.

      To throw a wrench in this discussion, I’ve had several British authors and one editor I worked with (who I felt had a lot of weak areas and so I didn’t trust her rulings on everything) who put the dashes inside the quote. In fact, the example above was originally written by the author as:

      ‘And since when did you eat – ‘ I held up a fast-food wrapper between finger and thumb. It dripped. ‘ – this kind of stuff?’

      I don’t feel that would be correct, nor if the spaces between the en dash and quote were removed, nor if closed-up ems were used instead!


  60. Rachel, as you have, I’ve seen all sorts of punctuation combinations for interrupted dialogue, including unbalanced ones with the dash inside the quotation marks on one side of the interruption and outside them on the other. I think the problem here is simply that writers don’t know how to set up such a construction. It’s not one talked about very often. It’s not used very often. But I love how it gives writers another way to approach dialogue.

    If Oxford uses the closed em dash, I definitely think you’ve got a good case for using them.

    I’m laughing as I write this, but since you’re an editor, you’ll understand I can’t resist asking about other changes to the sentence from your example. Did you by chance change it to

    ‘And since when did you eat‘—I held up a dripping fast-food wrapper between finger and thumb—‘this kind of stuff?’

    Just wondering . . .

  61. Wynja says:

    I hope I leave this in the right place so I’m not butting into another conversation… sorry if that’s the case!
    I have a question about dialogue punctuation in English that I’d love to “put to rest” so to speak…
    The example:
    “I like you,” he smiled.
    “I like you.” He smiled.

    For me, the last one sounds like he’s smiling AFTER he speaks, and the first one sounds (like I meant it to) that he smiles AS he’s speaking… but is the second one still the correct one? I tend to write he smiles/laugh/coughed/frowned and such a lot, and in my minds eye it often happens WHILE speaking… but it’s not “speak things” to do.. .I mean stuttered/whispered and such would CLEARLY be a comma… help?

  62. Wynja, feel free to ask questions on any article.

    Yes, the second option, with the period between the dialogue and the smile, is the correct one. With the comma rather than a period, he smiled is turned into a dialogue tag. But people don’t smile their speech. They can’t laugh it or snort it either. Check out this article on the use and misuse of dialogue tags for more details.

    If you want to keep the smile in the same sentence as the dialogue, to keep them close together—even though people don’t really smile while they’re speaking, try something like this—

    “I like you,” he said, smiling broadly.

    And you’re right that whispered would get a comma, because it introduces a dialogue tag. Stuttered, however? You’d find people that argue on both sides of that one. People do stutter, but it’s a description of what they do. It’s not the same as saying they said something. But some genres are more accepting of creative dialogue tags. The point with a tag, however, is to let readers know who is speaking. It’s not to describe how the character delivers his words. There are plenty of other ways to do that.

    I hope that helps.

  63. Ezri says:

    That was really useful. Thanks!

  64. Angela says:

    Hi! I’m so glad I came across your site! I was wondering if you might help me with two sentences in quotes that have been boggling my mind for days!

    1. An interrupted question: Does the second part of the question in the quotation marks begin with a capital?
    “How do you know you don’t like broccoli?” my moms asks, “if you won’t even taste it?”
    “How do you know you don’t like broccoli?” my moms asks, “If you won’t even taste it?”

    “You’ll love it, just try it.”
    “You’ll love it. Just try it.”
    “You’ll love it just try it.”

    Thank you so much for all your help!!

    • Angela, if the question is truly interrupted, the second half doesn’t start with a capital letter. So in your #1, the first option is correct. Yet the question mark goes at the end of the full sentence, not halfway through. So—

      “How do you know you don’t like broccoli,” my mom asks, “if you won’t even taste it?”

      A slightly different wording, however, would give you another option, two separate sentences—

      “How do you know you don’t like broccoli?” my mom asks. “You won’t even taste it.”

      For your second example, both options 1 and 2 are correct, although some might consider the first option to be a comma splice. Yet for short sentences whose clauses are similar, the comma is sufficient. You typically wouldn’t use a period or semicolon (though both are technically correct) for a sentence such as—

      He wanted steak, she wanted lamb.

      Your third option is a run-on sentence—punctuation is needed between the sentence parts.

      I hope that helps.

      • Angela says:

        Yes this really helps! Thank you so much!! :-)

      • Angela says:

        Since you were so helpful with my questions about sentences within quotes, I was hoping you would be able to help me figure out the proper use of ellipses used for pausing.

        1. Is this the correct way to use a pausing ellipses or does the Y in yummy need to be capitalized?

        “Mmmm… yummy cheesy broccoli,” she says.

        2. Is the spacing of the ellipses correct? Also, is the “So” capitalized?

        Okay maybe just a little bite… So I closed my eyes, held my breath, and took a bite.

        Thank you so much for your time and help! :-)

  65. Thank you! Your information is so helpful. I’m at a loss with punctuation, which makes this blog a tremendous help. I have a retired English teacher who does my editing for me. It seems I learned ‘informal’ English in school, but writing novels should be done with ‘formal’ English. Every time I think I’ve finally gotten it right, she corrects me!
    I have already found answers to several problems that have plagued me. I’m going to correct those. Just maybe, I won’t have so many red marks when she returns my mss. Thank you again.

  66. C.hagens says:

    Hi Ms. Hill,
    I love the post on Punctuation in Dialogue.
    I’m really trying to wrap my head around how to punctuate an action following a dialogue tag.

    In the section below from your post:

    Single line of dialogue with dialogue tag and action
    The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag is next and the action follows the tag—no capital letter because this is part of the same sentence—with a period to end the sentence.

    “He loved you,” she said, hoping Sue didn’t hear her.

    Is there a difference in writing the example above like this like the following:

    “He loved you, ” she said. She hoped Sue didn’t hear her.

    Thanks you so much for help on this

  67. Thanks so much for posting this. I’m always confused about the rules on quotation marks. This is very helpful.

  68. Rose Lee says:

    Good information. have More stuff about Use of Capitalization in English quickly to share.

  69. I can’t thank you enough! I’ve been reading ever since I could remember and I don’t know why I failed to notice that every quote ended with a comma [like this: “She loved you,” he said.] I always wrote it this way: “She loved you.” he said.

    So yes, thank you so much! Your blog has been a lot of help since punctuation is really difficult. Thanks again!

    • Ailla, I’m glad the blog’s been helpful. Until we sit down and try to write out the stories in our heads, few of use do know how a manuscript is typically formatted, so don’t think you’re the only one.

  70. Moppin says:

    I am writing a play for the first time. I have the characters name the semicolon space on some I have the ( action ) then the dialogue do I capitalize the first word of the line even though it is a action?

    And then I have the characters name the semicolon space then the dialogue then the ( for action then the ) do I capitalize the first word of the action if yes, why if no why not? Thank you for your time. Moppin

  71. Jayde says:

    I just wanted to ask something about dashes (-)… you see, I’m continuing a sentence after my character has been interrupted. For example:

    “But Mr Jenson –,” Sophie’s piercing voice hollered. “Please, sir; he’s calling you all sorts of names!”

    Is a comma required after the dash is in the first part of dialogue? Or should it just be left as a dash?

    Thanks in advance, and thankyou for all of your help!!

  72. Jayde, the short answer is no comma. The dash replaces the need for it. (CMOS 16 6.86 and Hart’s 4.11.2)

    But there are other issues to look at in your example.

    #1 I’m guessing that you’re using British English (BrE) rules because of your dash surrounded by spaces and the absence of a full stop after Mr. But even with BrE, use a full em dash (or em rule) before the closing quotation marks when dialogue is cut off. This means no spaces on either side. So “But, Mr Jensen—”

    #2 We use the em dash to show when dialogue has been cut off or interrupted, typically by another character but sometimes by the speaker herself. Yet in your example, that doesn’t look to be the case. Nothing is interrupting her except the dialogue tag, which isn’t an interruption in the usual sense. I suggest not using a dash for this example. It’s simply regular dialogue. These options would work—

    “But, Mr Jenson,” Sophie hollered, her voice piercing, “please, sir, he’s calling you all sorts of names!”

    “But, Mr Jenson,” Sophie hollered, her voice piercing. “Please, sir, he’s calling you all sorts of names!”

    “But, Mr Jenson”—Sophie’s voice was piercing—“please, sir, he’s calling you all sorts of names!”

    If you do want something to interrupt her words, show what that something is. I’ve embellished a bit in the next example to give you an idea of interrupted dialogue.

    “But, Mr Jenson—” Sophie clapped a hand over her mouth. Nobody hollered in the chairman’s office. “Please, sir,” she whispered, “he’s calling you all sorts of names!”

    #3 Both BrE and American English (AmE) require a comma before a name in direct address.

    More than you wanted, I’m sure. But I hope it helps.

    • Tanis says:

      Hi, Beth!
      If the speaker’s dialogue is cut off in the middle of a word by the speaker herself (either by an action tag or by a thought or explanation), how would you punctuate it, especially when the resuming dialogue is a continuation of the interrupted dialogue and not a new sentence?

  73. Joe Sandoval says:

    I’m writing a story as told to me and I have a question about the following dialogue:

    We had a really big problem at the school. The parents were calling us saying, “We’re scared to drop our kids off. All those thugs outside the school make us nervous.” I couldn’t disagree with them. We had to take action. I told them, “Okay. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

    Is it be appropriate to combine multiple quotes in the same paragraph or is the paragraph below more appropriate, because it uses a new quote to introduce a new quote:

    We had a really big problem at the school. The parents were calling us saying, “We’re scared to drop our kids off. All those thugs outside the school make us nervous.”
    I couldn’t disagree with them. We had to take action. I told them, “Okay. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

  74. In your comments about dialogue across multiple paragraphs, does that come from a style manula for business writing like the Chicago Manula of Style or is it from a style manual on fiction writing. I ask, as I was always taught that the dropping the quotation mark applied only to when QUOTING works of others, and thus not applicable to dialogue in fiction.

    • Ernest, I’d never heard of dropping the closing quotation mark in multiple paragraphs solely for quoted material as opposed to dialogue, but I looked up the rules in a couple of places so you’d have the references.

      Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.)—See 13.30 and 13.37—both sections mention dialogue specifically and both say to include closing quotation marks only for the final paragraph.

      Grammatically Correct (by Anne Stilman)—page 173—“If one speaker’s dialogue runs more than a paragraph, put opening quotation marks at the start of each paragraph but a closing mark only at the end of the last one, since the closing mark is the signal that the speech has ended.”

      I’m sure other sources contain the same advice.

      And just a note—CMOS is not reserved for business writing. Actually, it’s probably used most by writers of books, whether fiction or nonfiction. It contains a great many rules and examples you can’t easily find in other resources. If you’re writing fiction using AmE (American English), CMOS should be your main style resource. Use New Hart’s Rules for BrE (British English).

      I hope that was what you were looking for.

      • Thanks for the response, Beth. I see how the dropped quote works when quoting a speech by another (regardless of length), but I have some significant issues with applying the drop quote to fictional dialogue. Part of that is what a quote is; according to the Oxford Dictionary a quote is: “A group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker:” As I’m the author of the fictional work I can’t be quoting myself. Logically, an author creating his own dialogue can’t be quoting another, just as I can’t be quoting another while giving a speech. Also, the style manuals require an attribution for a quotation, which you don’t do in normal fictional dialogue.

        I’m Australian and was taught not to use the dropped quote in created dialogue, but to use it when quoting from a book or another person’s speech unless you use the block quote method.

        In my own works I use the quotation rules when quoting material from other books or talks by living people, but don’t use the dropped quote in dialogue as I’ve found it causes many readers to get confused about who is speaking, because it’s such a small thing the eye can too easily miss it.

        To date I’ve gotten around this via the use of block quotes for long real quotes, and extra narrative with speaker tags for dialogue. I guess I’ll continue to to do so.



        • Sorry, error in the previous post. Where I said:

          Logically, an author creating his own dialogue can’t be quoting another, just as I can’t be quoting another while giving a speech.

          I meant to say:

          Logically, an author creating his own dialogue can’t be quoting another, just as I can’t be quoting myself while giving a speech.

      • One of the things about the dropped quote method is it stands out as a continued dialogue IF the author starts each dialogue with something like ‘Fred said, …’ and leaves the tag off for the duration of the multi-paragraph dialogue. But it gets extremely confusingn when they ahve a section of dialogue with two people talking, so they drop the tags, then suddenly dump a multi-paragraph dialogue in there. Most readers continue to read it as the dialogue going from one to the other because they aren’t immediately aware of the dropped quote.

        • Ernest, I can see possible issues with the example you mentioned, about moving back and forth between characters and then having multiple paragraphs of dialogue from a single character. Yet most readers will see the closing quotation mark or the lack of it. I’m certain you’d end up creating more problems if you were to have a closing quotation mark in one paragraph and an opening quotation mark in the next paragraph if the two paragraphs contain the words of a single speaker. That is, the instances when a reader doesn’t note the absence of a closing quotation mark will be fewer than the instances when readers do note the presence of a closing quotation mark where it’s not supposed to be.

          I’m not saying that you’re advocating that option, because I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but I am suggesting that doing so would cause more problems than solve them. Including that closing quotation mark where it doesn’t belong would have readers trying to figure out who was talking.

          Adding an action or an action tag at the beginning of a new paragraph for the same speaker is one way to head off potential problems if the dialogue has been ping-ponging between characters and is now going to contain multiple paragraphs from one speaker. You mentioned you used dialogue tags for the same purpose; either option words. The block quote option doesn’t work for dialogue in fiction since the block quote is used for quoting someone else and would be used in fiction for other purposes (such as quoting a long letter or email). An example of action interrupting the dialogue of one speaker (an ending quotation mark is now required in the first paragraph) is here—

          ” . . . because that’s how I’d do it. I’d do it just like that.”

          Andy glared at his brother and shook a finger at him. “And after I did that, I’d jump into my car and . . .”


          If we’re talking fiction, dialogue has its own rules and peculiarities. Dialogue is not the same as quoting someone else. Quotation marks are used to frame dialogue, just as they are used to quote others, but don’t let that throw you—dialogue and the quoting of others are not the same thing. Dialogue in fiction is simply spoken words. We use quotation marks as a convention so readers understand that characters are speaking, but we’re not comparing dialogue to quotes or saying that the two are the same element. The two simply make use of the same conventions.

          And do you recall any resources that encouraged you to include the closing quotation mark with multiple paragraphs of dialogue? How long ago was this? I wonder if they’re still making the same recommendation today. I’d guess not. I don’t know any resources that promote the use of a closing quotation between uninterrupted speech of a single character. But if it’s out there, I’d love to have a look at it.

  75. In answer to your questions and a bit of clarification:

    1. Block quotation
    I only use this when I have a multiple paragraph quotation or using it in the same way to show a text document. Example: narrative includes a multiple quotation of another character or from a real world source – done as a block quotation with proper attribution. Another example: narrative incorporates the contents of a letter sent or recieved by a character – bolock quotation with reference to the source. – in short a standard quotation process for a quotation situation. Not used for any dialogue at all, by me.

    2. Multi-paragraph dialogue by the one speaker – the character is giving a lecure or a long talk.
    It matters not if this is in the middle of an exchange or not, when I decide a paragraph of dialogue by one person is long enough I close it out like normal with a closing quote. When I have that same person providing more dialogue in the very next paragraph I start the paragraph with something like either: He continues with,” ….” or – After taking a sip of water Fred says, ” …..” – in short. I provide an identifier tag of some sort to the next paragraph to make it clear who’s speaking. This way it’s easy for the reader to follow, because the dropped quote is so very easy to miss.


    I agree with you that fictional dialogue is not the same as a quotation, which is one of the reasons I’ve an issue with people applying all the quotation rules, such as a dropped quote, to the dialogue sections.

    Now, as to what I was taught. I’m an Australian and was taught under our version of the UK system back in the 1960s and it was in the text books for Advanced English – that was the only level we were taught anything but basic writing for letters and business. Don’t know what they do or use today. But when I asked a few high school English teachers, and a couple of English profs at the local university, they all said using the dropped quote was only relevant when quoting another person’s work or speech and it wasn’t relevant to fictional dialogue. They didn’t refer me to any text books.

    We were taught, then, to:

    a. Use the quotation marks to open and close EVERY section of dialogue.

    b. New speaker, new paragraph for their dialogue. (Thus the old arguement of alternating single word comments by people takes up a LOT of space.)

    c. The only time you do NOT put an identifier tag on a piece of dialogue is when you have a back and forth exchange of several sections of dialogue and have already made it clear who is who. Then you can save words and space by not using tags while only those two are talking, because it’s clear the change of paragraph means a change of speaker and people can follow who said what.

    d. In dialogue the focus of the paragraph is the person speaking, not the content of what they’re saying. Thus you can have the person cover multiple topics in the one paragraph of dialogue.

    e. If the speaker is doing something while talking, you can include the relevant bits of narrative on their actions between the sections of dialogue within the same paragraph.

    f. Rules for quotations only apply to the usual quotation situations of recounting another’s words or text.

    There was a lot more than that, but that’s all that’s relevant to this discussion.

    The probelms I’ve seen in a lot of recent works by US authors are cases of (c) and they suddenly have one person talking for a a few paragraphs. The only thing to indicate it is the one person talking is the use of the dropped quote. However, because the reader is already into the back and forth mind set they often miss the dropped quote and think it’s still the exchange situation.

    Another aspect I’m seeing that’s related and very annoying, is the dialogue paragraphs will often be short one or two sentence paragraphs because the authors are often changing the dialogue paragraph due to the speaker covering more than one topic. So you have a sequence of short paragraphs with dropped quotes, as against long ones.

    I’ll admit if I see two dialogue paragraphs that go on for about a hundred words each it’s more likely to suspect them of being the same speaker and look for any indicators, but when you see three or four dialogue paragraphs of ten to twenty words one after the other, you don’t expect them all to be by the same character.

    My main concern in all my writing is to have a high degree of clarity for the readers. I know many of my readers are older people and they have eyesight issues, so I make an extra effort to avoid anything that may cause them issues. And I just realised I need to check out how the text to voice programs handle the dropped quote situation as that will affect a lot of readers too.

    You havee me email if you wish to take continue this without taking up some much of your web page.



  76. Ernest, there’s no problem at all with this discussion taking up the page. That’s exactly what the site is for, to explore the different issues of writing. I’m sure the comments here will get others thinking as well.

    Thanks for the additional information. I’ll probably search for even more information, see who today is recommending not dropping the closing quotation mark for multiple paragraphs in dialogue.

    A relevant personal experience—

    Just after reading this latest comment of yours, I came across four paragraphs of dialogue from a single speaker. It was a character confessing details about a crime and the dialogue was easy to follow.

    Yet just this morning I came across two paragraphs of a single speaker that I hadn’t known were the words of a single speaker. I overlooked the missing closing quotation mark and assumed, briefly, that the second paragraph (of only a single line) was the speech of another character. When I went back and noted that the closing quotation mark was missing, everything made sense. But I did have to go back and reread, which is an issue that you pointed out.

    Yet at the same time, I personally wouldn’t have broken the paragraphs where the author did—there was no reason to separate the line into another paragraph. Plus the dialogue from that second paragraph could have come from either character. I think either the punctuation or the wording could have been used differently to avoid any chance of misreading.

    A great conversation, Ernest. Thank you for going in depth with it.

  77. Tanis says:

    My question relates to singing an entire song in dialogue. Would you treat it as you would multiple paragraphs by the same speaker by inserting an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each new verse)?

    • Tanis says:

      Whoops, part of my question somehow got deleted. The rest of the question concerned having a closing quotation mark only at the end of the last verse.

      • Tanis, you could set up the song exactly as you’ve indicated, with the quotation marks only at the beginnings of successive lines of dialogue. Or you could set off the song as block text, with additional margins left and right.

        But even if this is your own song, I’d suggest not including all the verses and choruses. You run the risk of readers skipping the song altogether if you include a full song or full poem. Can you include only a couple of lines that mean something special to a character? Try including the character’s response to certain words and phrases rather than simply laying out the whole song.

        See this article on using lyrics and poetry in fiction.

  78. Tanis, be very wary of quoting a whole song because of the copyright issues involved. If it’s still under copyright you need to get a signed written authority from the copyright holders before you can use more than a few lines of the song.

    The one time I had a full song in a work I used the ‘block quote’ method for a song that was in the public domain because it made it stand out better. Where I used songs that were under current copyright I used only enough words from the first line to identify it so I wouldn’t breach the copyright laws.


  79. Pops says:

    Hello, Beth

    Happy New Year!

    I have a simple but nagging question about punctuation in dialogue. This is the closing line of an interchange, and my query concerns the comma between the words ‘worry’ and ‘I’m’:

    “Don’t worry, I’m a big tipper.”

    Is the comma correct, or would a semicolon – or perhaps even a full stop – be more appropriate?


    • Pops, it’s likely that in most situations, I’d go with the comma for your example.

      There are a few situations in which it’s okay to use a comma rather than a semicolon or period, both of which would be correct between independent clauses.

      We use a comma in cases of contrast—
      He didn’t eat the dinner, he made it.

      We use a comma for tag questions—
      You wanted to go to the movies, didn’t you?

      We use a comma with short clauses and/or clauses that have a similar feel—
      I came, I saw, I conquered.

      I’d argue that your example is close to the contrast exception. A similar exception would be—
      That’s okay, I’ll take care of it.

      While comma splices are still frowned upon in more formal writing, fiction and other creative writing projects do allow for leeway. You could use a period or a semicolon in your sentence, but that might be too fussy, too “correct” for the feel you’re trying to create. Neither would be wrong, but that doesn’t mean either would be the best option.

      You could also use a dash if you wanted to introduce a longer pause or wanted to draw attention to the second clause—I’m a big tipper.

      But I do like the comma and would find no fault with it. With a slight change, however, I would use a semicolon. The emphasis and rhythm call for a different punctuation mark in the following situation—

      And, Sam, don’t worry; I’m a big tipper.

  80. madrino says:

    In regard to contractions, should they along with apostrophes be removed in writing a novel?
    i.e. “couldn’t”, “wouldn’t”, “shouldn’t” and just replace it with, “could not”, “would not”, “should not”….

  81. G’day,

    The use of contractions or not is a personal choice, however, not using them does make what you write look and read more like an assignment essay than a novel for entertainment. I use them all the time in the novels I write, and it’s almost a requirement in the dialogue because the dialogue is meant to represent what people actually say, which is done using contractions.


  82. Madrino, I agree with Ernest—use contractions. Your readers will appreciate it.

  83. Darien says:

    Hi Beth,

    Just a quick question. In your example:

    “He loved you, Emma.”

    “Emma, he loved you.”

    “He loved you, honey.”

    “He loved you, Emma, more than he loved Sally.”

    Wouldn’t Honey be capital because it is being used as a name? I have several of those in my manuscript, so I just want to be sure.

    Thanks so much!!!


    • Darien, endearments are different from names, so they don’t get capped. If one character is calling another honey, sweetie, darlin’, or similar endearments, they aren’t capped. If a character’s name is Honey and everyone calls her that, you would cap it. (This is true even if Honey’s given name is Ermengarde.) So if everyone calls a guy Doc, that’s his name. If his wife calls him doc once or twice when he gets on her case or oversteps, it’s an endearment, even if it doesn’t sound like one.

  84. Darien says:

    Man, I so thought I was right on that one, lol!

    Thanks again!!! Luckily that’s an easy one to fix!


  85. Victoria says:

    How do you punctuate dialogue as part of a list of actions in a sentence?

    Example: Nate said, “Good!” stood up, and left.

    Should there be a comma after “Good!”?

    • G’day Victoria,

      I agree with Beth’s response on this wording as is. However, either way looks cumbersome to me. In similar scenes in my stories I’d write it this way:

      Nate stood up and left while saying, “Good!”

      That allows you to get the action in while still giving his dialogue the emphasis you want.

      • Pops says:

        I’d drop the ‘up’ and add a little more action:

        Nate stood, and fired a parting shot on his way out. “Good!”

    • Ernest and Pops, I love when blog visitors add to the discussion. There are definitely multiple ways to phrase any one sentence.

  86. Victoria, a comma would be exactly right, but you wouldn’t use both an exclamation point and a comma. I’d suggest not using an exclamation point because stood looks detached from the sentence, at least visually. Readers might be momentarily confused. So use the comma, but drop the exclamation point.

    Nate said, “Good,” stood up, and left.

  87. Naruto says:

    Excuse-me Mr. Beth Hill; hope i do not make it hard to understand-me since i’m not that good in english.

    I’m writing a book, a fantasy book with hundreds of names and characters of all kinds, and it’s really hard to clearly explain them in the book, in the dialogues at all, without a hard identification. I’d paste here a part of this dialogue examples but it’s written in Portuguese-BR; however let’me create an example using its own characters:


    At least one of the beasts seems to be starting an attack soon.
    Que’atan [*this word is in bold]
    Damn it! – muttering to him self. – Agata, go! Chase that exanime!
    Agata [*this word is in bold]
    All right! – she leaves the group.
    The beast jump striking some of the knights while the other protects it from being harmed by the attackers. the knights round the place trying to harm the wolf while Que’atan introduces him self into the battle.


    I’d know if is this way i used to write this dialogues acceptable by the editors. I just used it because of the large amount of characters talking to each other during the scenes; and considering the readers will have difficult to understand who’s’who during the fights and over.

  88. Naruto,

    I’m not sure how it goes in other languages, but in English it’s simple to have multiple characters in a dialogue; you just give each one their own paragraph and include an identifier tag with each paragraph of dialogue. The identifier is their name (first, last, or nickname) plus a voice word at the start, end, or the middle of the dialogue. Some examples being:

    Fred said, “You idiot!”
    “I’m not,” whined George.
    “Shut up,” Harry shouted, “you’re both at fault.”

    Identifiers – Fred, George, Harry – makes it clear who said what and can have as many as you want.

    Voice words – said, whined, shouted and similar type words.

    In a story I’m working on I have a long scene with many people speaking. I chose to put all the tags at the start in this scene and thus the paragraph starts are:

    Gary said, …
    Tina giggles and quotes, …
    Gary adds, …
    Mrs Bailey says, …
    Anna says, …
    An onlooker butts in with, ….
    Dave declares, …
    Matt turned and said, ….

    Seven people spoke in eight paragraphs of a complex scene. I could have put some of the identifiers elsewhere in the dialogues, but they were short and I saw no point in expanded them just to take up more space.

    One thing, you indicate stuff being in bold, but it’s not clear if you’re saying the name is bold or the first word of the dialogue is. Bold is usually reserved for emphasis is a dialogue or narrative,


  89. Andrew says:

    Hi Beth,

    Fantastic blog, and very, very clear with all of the examples – much appreciated!

    My question is related to a part of dialogue I don’t know what to call, so if you can name it, then help me know how to punctuate it, I’d appreciate it.

    He looked at me with that look of his that said, “you are on the right path.”

    What is ‘you are on the right path,’ and how is it punctuated? Is a look quotable?

    Again – thanks!


    • Ernest says:

      G’day Andrew,

      In the scene you paint with:

      He looked at me with that look of his that said, “you are on the right path.”

      I picture the person being spoken of as having an expression on their face that indicates to the narrator the person approves of what happened just before that. The section in quotes can be called the name of the expression or a description of the expression. However, because the bit after said is actually a description of the expression and not actual words spoken it’s wrong to have it in double quotes, singles quotes are frequently used in such a situation and I’ve also seen some people put the statement in italics.

      Hope this helps you,


      • Andrew says:

        Thanks Ernest,

        I was thinking italics too – it’s always good to hear someone else break it down. Much appreciated!

      • Ernest, just a reminder that it’s not actually single quotes that are used in such situations—it’s quotation marks period. They can be singles for someone following the rules of British English, but it’s the fact that quotation marks are used that’s important. That is, it’s not specifically single quotation marks used in such cases. It’s just that BrE allows for the use of singles or doubles.

        If you used double quotation marks for dialogue and other purposes, you’d want to use doubles in this instance for the sake of consistency. And as I mentioned to Andrew, singles would never be used for such a purpose by someone following American English rules.

        • Ernest says:

          G’day Beth,

          I understand what you’re saying, and I was brought up with the Australian version of the UK English way for writing. In it we were taught to use double quotation marks for when quoting someone or showing dialogue in a story. However, we also use single quotation marks for quoting someone within a dialogue; example:

          George asks Ralph, “Who was it that said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ during the American Colonial Rebellion against the British?”

          I was also taught that to use single quotation marks around certain types of names, especially informal names and nicknames; example:

          Peter was happy to see his friend John ‘Dusty’ Rhodes get out of the car that just arrived.

          In Andrew’s example how you treat it will depend on whether you regard the section after said as a name / title for that type of expression or just a description. And that brings it down to a personal choice decision. My feeling is italics will work or single quotes will work or both, but double quotes are definitely out.

          In the case of nicknames etc. it’s also common to have the nickname and the single quotes in italics to make it stand out more, but not required. The times I’ve seen people use the single quotes for something like that they used double quotes for dialogue and standard quotations elsewhere in the same work, so it wasn’t a case of the older BrE usage.


          Oh, another usage for single quotes I often do is to use them with italics to show thoughts in stories; example:

          Walking out of the bushes he had been hiding in George watches the enemy convoy crossing the bridge, while thinking, ‘Damn that was close. They almost caught us.’ He turns back to the bushes, and says, “OK, men, they’re gone, let’s get going.”

          I was never taught how to show thoughts as against dialogue, but felt in needed to be different, so I used the single quotations and italics, and have since seen many others who do the same in their writing. Thus I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks about it that way.

          In short, double quotations marks for dialogue and standard quotation usage and single quotation marks for other usage to make something stand out, with italics also used to help make things stand out when wanted.

          The correct use of things like quotation marks and italics and bold is fraught with many opportunities to mess it up, and also opportunities to make things stand out. I think this excellent blog and thread really shows the concerns some people have in this area.



    • Andrew, I would also suggest italics, but not single quotation marks. At least not if you’re following American English rules. You could use quotation marks (doubles), but the italics show the words are something other than speech.

  90. Mary says:

    Please, I am unsure if “or” needs a comma or not:

    They say dippy things like, “I’ve got a drawer full of metal stars that flew out of my neck,” or, “The gang is run by rock bands.”

    Thank you in advance.

    • Mary, no comma is necessary after or. Yet you also don’t need commas after like and neck. You might also want to consider and in place of or.

      Consider this comparison without dialogue—

      They collected odd items like paper clips and smooth rocks.

      • Mary says:

        Thank you for setting me straight on this. So, please, is a comma before dialogue only necessary before a direct quote? Example: Jane said, “That was silly.” Am I right that the following does not require a comma? I thought I heard Jane say “That was silly.”

        Thanks again. Much appreciated.

  91. Naveen says:

    I wish to know whether or not we can and should use a comma after the exclamation mark or the question mark at the end of the introductory part/adverbial clause/interjection in a split quote.
    “Alas!”, he exclaimed, “My mother- in-law is no more.” (Should the comma before “he” be there?)

    When Tom’s youngest sister screamed “Help!”, their landlord called the police. (Can we retain the comma before “their”?
    “What?”, she said, “You’ve lost my ATM card!” (Can the comma before “she” be retained?)
    I will remain ever obliged for your help.
    Thank you very much.

    • Naveen, the question mark and exclamation point replace the comma in these sentences (at least the first and third), so, no, you don’t need both. (Remember that the comma, if used alone, would go inside the quotation marks.)

      You might want to skip the exclamation point after help. It’s not wrong to use it, but it also isn’t necessary. And if you dropped the exclamation point, you would include a comma instead. And we would typically introduce dialogue with a comma, but this line doesn’t seem to call for a direct quote. So you could skip the direct dialogue and say—

      When Tom’s youngest sister screamed for help, their landlord called the police.

      In the last example, change the comma after she said to a period since you’re treating the dialogue as two sentences—

      “What?” she said. “You’ve lost my ATM card!”

      You might want to switch the final exclamation point to a question mark—

      “You’ve lost my ATM card?”

      In the first example, you also have a comma before a capital letter in My. That too should be a period.

      “Alas!” he exclaimed. “My mother-in-law is no more.”

      I hope that helps.

  92. Naveen says:

    Thank you very much, Beth. I am much obliged. I have one more question, please. You have used an exclamation mark after “What” in my third example above ( What! she said.”You’ve lost my ATM card!”) while I had used a question mark. Is an exclamation mark after “what” correct when it shows anger, surprise or disbelief? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “what” as follows and uses a question mark with it in the two examples it gives:
    What? (sense 3) used to express surprise or anger
    ‘It will cost $500.’ ‘What?’
    ‘I asked her to marry me.’ ‘You what?’

    Thank you very much in advance. It would be so obliging of you.

    • Naveen, an exclamation point would be acceptable under certain conditions, but I don’t think I changed that one on purpose. I may have been thinking ahead to my suggestion about including a question mark after ATM card and then deciding you probably wouldn’t want to have both sentences as questions ending with question marks. My apologies; I’ll edit that to reflect the question mark that you had.

  93. Beatrice says:

    Hello Beth,
    I was hoping you could give me some guidance on what to do with dialogue in which the POV character only hears one half of the conversation because she is evesdropping on her mother’s telephone conversation, so she can hear her mother, but she can’t hear the voice coming through the phone. It feels right, in terms of rhythm, to have extra wide gaps between each one of her mother’s comments to show that there was a pause during which the person on the other end of the phone said something. I have even considered using a dash (em dash, I guess) sitting on its own at the beginning of an empty line where the other person’s speech would have been. Any thoughts? Thank you very much for your help.
    Kind regards,

  94. G’day Beatrice,

    I have this situation in a lot of my stories and handle it the easiest way I can that doesn’t waste space. After the dialogue by the person at this end of the phone I have narrative along the lines of: there’s a pause while he listens to the other person, then says, “…..,” another pause, and “…. .” After a real long pause to listen, he adds, “…”

    That conveys the onesidedness of the conversation, shows some pauses are longer than others, and doesn’t waste a lot of space in the story. Space may not be an issue with an ebook, but a lot of people still print ebook out to read the printed work in places they can’t, or don’t, take their e-readers and extra lines add up to extra pages.


  95. Beatrice and Ernest, a great way to show only one side of an overhead conversation is to use the ellipsis.


    After Mom lowered her voice, I sidled closer to the door so I could hear better.

    “I tell you, Rosemary, it’s a travesty. He took off in the middle of the night. . . . No, I didn’t actually see him leave, but Nancy Johnston did. She was out walking her Maltese. He’s incontinent, you know. . . . Yes, exactly. Just like a thief. . . . Nothing but his briefcase. And something in a dirty box. . . . Well, there wasn’t much left since the movers spent fourteen hours there on Thursday. . . . Stop yelling! I told you all that yesterday. . . . Hmm . . . Well, maybe I told Eleanor.”

    I eased away and backed into the living room when Mom’s voice got louder.


    Be sure to put a period at the end of the sentences of the speaker who can be heard. Then add the three-point ellipsis to indicate that the unheard speaker is talking. For American English (AmE), put spaces before, between, and after the ellipsis points. For British English (BrE), put spaces before and after but not between.

    As with any dialogue, you wouldn’t want this to go on too long uninterrupted. And you want to be sure that the speaker you can hear doesn’t give too much away, as if he or she knows readers are listening.

    I hope that helps.

    • Beatrice says:

      Thank you so much Beth and Ernest for your very helpful comments! And thanks for explaining how it’s done in British English, Beth!

  96. G’day Beth,

    I know a lot of people do it that way, but I tend to save the ellipsis for broken off dialogue. Also, using ellipsis doesn’t really give you a way to show differences in lengths between comments. However, your comment did remind me of another method I’ve seen used where the one side is shown as a series of dialogues after a suitable narrative; example:

    I could here George speaking, but it didn’t make much sense as I could only hear his side of the conversation: “No that’s not right.” “Damn it, don’t do that!” “yeah, I understand.” “Just get it done.” I moved to get a better view and could see him on the phone just before he hung up.


    It’s another variation where you have no idea of how long the other side speaks for between dialogues. But does show there are multiple methods on how this can be done and you just need to chose one that you feel works for you and use it consistently.


    • Ernest, your example here is another great way to report the dialogue. One more way would be to use indirect dialogue to tell what had been said. But the ellipsis is a simple way to show exactly what the listener is hearing as he’s hearing it.

      If you want commentary or a sense of the characters’ movements as the scene plays out, definitely consider the viewpoint character commenting and reporting what was said. But to show dialogue as it’s happening, do consider the ellipsis. It can be used for more than just the one purpose.

      You’re right; there are always multiple ways to achieve our purposes in writing.

  97. Beatrice says:

    Hello again Beth,
    I hope I’m not taking advantage of your good will by asking another question, but I’m struggling with where to start a new paragraph when a character’s contribution to a conversation is nonverbal. What I would like to know is this: When speech by one character is followed by a description of another character’s behaviour in response to that statement, does that description get a new paragraph? I am inclined to think it does, as in the example below:
    ‘So she climbs buildings? Isn’t that dangerous?’ my grandmother asked.
    I could see my mother was trying to take part in the conversation but was struggling to find the words in Italian. At one point it looked like she was about to say something, her mouth opening halfway, but then she held back.
    Meanwhile, Rosa was sitting next to my grandmother, staring into her coffee and stirring it pointlessly, with a look of resigned irritation on her face.
    ‘No, she doesn’t climb them. She paints them,’ my father explained.

    • Beatrice, feel free to ask questions at any time. I can’t guarantee I can get to them right away, but do ask.

      The short answer to your question is yes. Usually. You’ve broken your paragraphs in logical places, and readers will have no trouble following.

      (I put in the extra line spaces so others could see the breaks.)


      ‘So she climbs buildings? Isn’t that dangerous?’ my grandmother asked.

      I could see my mother was trying to take part in the conversation but was struggling to find the words in Italian. At one point it looked like she was about to say something, her mouth opening halfway, but then she held back.

      Meanwhile, Rosa was sitting next to my grandmother, staring into her coffee and stirring it pointlessly, with a look of resigned irritation on her face.

      ‘No, she doesn’t climb them. She paints them,’ my father explained.


      But let’s say your viewpoint character/narrator is the one with the response and the other character had a couple of lines of dialogue. Then either of these could work (though the second example is likely the more common):

      ‘So she climbs buildings? Isn’t that dangerous?’ my grandmother asked. My mouth fell open. ‘After all, what could she possibly hang on to?’ I simply shook my head.


      ‘So she climbs buildings? Isn’t that dangerous?’ my grandmother asked.

      My mouth fell open.

      ‘After all, what could she possibly hang on to?’

      I simply shook my head.


    • G’day Beatrice,

      In general, I agree with Beth’s response and it’s the technically correct way. However, I don’t always do it that way because there are times I can see it as breaking the reader’s concentration and the story flow. It all comes down to how well it reads and if it’s a break in the dialogue or an extension of the dialogue. Here are two examples where I wouldn’t break it:

      1. John turns to Fred, asking, “Is it done yet?” Fred grins and nods in reply, so John smiles and tells Harry, “Right, Harry, on your bike and get over there.” Harry turns and walks out the door while John reaches for the phone.

      2. Peter says, “You’re a useless idiot, Mark,” and ducks the roundhouse swing Mark takes at him. “Stop this before you get yourself hurt.”

      If the actions by others is long and involved, then you really do need to change paragraphs, but when it’s short and fits in with the dialogue I keep the flow going by incorporating it in the one paragraph. That’s gives a faster pacing. One of the advantages of fictions is you can sometimes bend the rules a little.



  98. Beatrice says:

    Thank you both for your very helpful answers!

  99. Phil Huston says:

    Okay, here’ one. I even bought your PDF (that wasn’t a brown nose) and I’m lost. Two people are dancing. Fake dialogue follows’

    “You look lovely, darling.”
    Thank you, Robert,”
    “Of course. I wouldn’t dream of saying that dress made you look short and fat.”

    “I can’t get no…sat-is fac-shun…”

    “Remember this one?”
    “It’s the story of tonight if you don’t learn when to keep your opinions to yourself.”

    Song lyrics. Not from a royalty song as set, but embedded “Oh, they’re playing our fictional song lyrics. Are those lyrics italicized as they are set off between dialogue? I even tried CMOS but was probably looking in the wrong place.

    • Phil, to set off lyrics—fictional or not—you have options. Keep them as part of the dialogue, so don’t try to separate them out in verses (unless you are actually using full verses). And use italics or quotation marks. I’d probably use italics. You wouldn’t need both italics and quotation marks, except those used for the whole of the dialogue.

      “Honey, I love you.”

      “Me too, babe.”

      “Hey, you remember that song? Me and my baby, nothing better, nothing better. Me and my baby, strolling along.


      “Hey, you remember that song? ‘Me and my baby, nothing better, nothing better. Me and my baby, strolling along.’ “

  100. Diana says:

    Hi Beth. Thanks for providing some great tips for writing and punctuating dialogue.

  101. In these sentences:

    >What kind of message does that send out? ‘You’ll never get there so stop trying.’; ‘don’t attempt to change the world – it’s impossible.’ <

    should 'don't' have a capital letter?

    Thanks so much!

    • Michelle, to answer your question, you wouldn’t use a capital letter after a semicolon.

      But this sentence doesn’t call for a semicolon or for quotation marks. The following options would be easier for the reader. (You could use italics for the two message questions, but italics aren’t required.)

      What kind of message does that send out? You’ll never get there, so stop trying? Don’t attempt to change the world – it’s impossible?

      What kind of message does that send out—you’ll never get there, so stop trying? Don’t attempt to change the world – it’s impossible?

      What kind of message does that send out: you’ll never get there, so stop trying? Don’t attempt to change the world – it’s impossible?

      I hope that helps.

  102. sherry says:

    What about speculated or imagined speech within a dialogue?

    Kelly said, “But, John, you never told me not to leave!”

    John’s eyes widened with hope. “Do you mean you wanted me to keep you from going? If I had said ‘Kelly, I love you, please stay!’ — you would have done it?”

    Single quotes, italics, what?

  103. Bruno says:

    “He loved y—“

    That’s an opening quotation mark at the end, not a closing one.

    Seems to me that a lot of people don’t realize not everything is a dialogue tag once they see this article. A shame this isn’t part of curriculum for English.

    Still, I think the worst offender is when someone breaks up two sentences with a dialogue tag and leaves a comma after the tag. Instead of:
    “He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction. “But you didn’t care.”

    I get this:
    “He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction, “But you didn’t care.”

    That’s the sentence structure the author used when I showed him this article. It was fanfiction, but I lost all will to correct him after that (because he was an ass. If he was less like… himself, I wouldn’t have even blinked).

    Are dialogue tags really that hard to understand? Maybe my perspective is skewed, but I don’t see the issue.

  104. Cassie says:

    Beth, I’m in a quandry how to punctuate the following sentence. It’s part of a chapter written in deep third person pov:
    Shrieks of no way and you’re kidding me blasted from the speaker phone.

    Should “shrieks of no way” and “you’re kidding me” be capitalized and/or have quotation marks and/or closing punctuation?

    Thanks so very much! Your blog is a godsend!

    • Bludflag says:

      Shrieks of “No way” and “You’re kidding me” blasted from the speaker phone.

      To my knowledge, the terminal punctuation marks are not to be placed in such sentences.

  105. Juan Antonio says:

    Concerning this topic of dialogue punctuation in fiction, I would like to know how I can correctly work with dashes as a substitute to quotation marks and whether to use en-dashes or em-dashes.

    I elaborate. In passages where dialogue is continuous and often utterances short as well, quotation marks seem to pile up and I don’t like the effect. Therefore, I am using a) new paragraph starting with en-dash plus space and no quotation marks any time there is a change of speaker; b) space plus en-dash plus space before and after dialogue quotations. If there comes a stop or similar, I dropped the final en-dash (that’s a con, it seems confusing sometimes). Then, what’s the best correct way to replace too many quotation marks? Am I do it right? Could you please illustrate your view with examples?

  106. VinceK says:

    Hello Beth,

    I purchased your excellent ‘Punctuation in Dialogue’, but I’m still not sure which of the following sentences would be appropriate to show dialogue interrupted by thought or action:

    ‘That’s my favourite.’ He pointed at the cloud of balloons. ‘The red one with silver stars.’

    ‘That’s my favourite’ — he pointed at the cloud of balloons — ‘the red one with silver stars.’

    ‘That’s my favourite…’ he pointed at the cloud of balloons ‘… the red one with silver stars.’

    ‘That’s my favourite’ – he pointed at the cloud of balloons – ‘the red one with silver stars.’

    ‘That’s my favourite’, he pointed at the cloud of balloons, ‘the red one with silver stars.’

    I’m not sure about the last one, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on which punctuation style, if grammatically correct (UK), would best suit an interruption in thought or action?

    Many thanks.

    • Bludflag says:

      So yeah, there’s some free space, but that last one is definitely wrong.

      An em dash or a pair of em dashes may indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue. (Where a faltering rather than sudden break is intended, suspension points may be used; see 13.39.)

      “Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.

      “Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—”

      “Might what?” she demanded.

      If the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.

      “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”


      Suspension points—also used to indicate an ellipsis—may be used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity. In the examples below, note the relative positions of the suspension points and other punctuation. (For the use of suspension points to indicate ellipses, see 13.48–56.)

      “I . . . I . . . that is, we . . . yes, we have made an awful blunder!”

      “The ship . . . oh my God! . . . it’s sinking!” cried Henrietta.

      “But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.

      Interruptions or abrupt changes in thought are usually indicated by em dashes. See 6.84.
      — Chicago Manual of Style

      I checked Hart, but I didn’t find anything on using en dashes for interrupting speech. Maybe someone else covered that?

      I do have “Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian,” though. My edition is from 2010, so take it with a grain of salt.

      ‘We’re on our way like you asked, almost to the Queens Midtown Tunnel. But, Percy, what are you planning? We’ve left the camp virtually undefended and there’s no way the gods –’
      — page 130

      Mainly, I suggest checking what the local books use. Maybe there’s a consistent style or one that you prefer?

      • VinceK says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply, Bludflag. Very informative.

        • Bludflag says:

          My mistake, I somehow missed what Hart said on em dashes.

          4.11.2 Em rule

          The em rule (US em dash) (—) (Unicode code point U+2014 EM DASH) is twice the length of an en rule. (An em is a unit for measuring the width of printed matter, originally reckoned as the width of a capital roman M, but in digital fonts equal to the current typesize, so an em in 10 point text is 10 points wide.) Oxford and most US publishers use a closed-up em rule as a parenthetical dash; other British publishers use the en rule with space either side.

          No punctuation should precede a single dash or the opening one of a pair. A closing dash may be preceded by an exclamation or question mark, but not by a comma, semicolon, colon, or full point. Do not capitalize a word, other than a proper noun, after a dash, even if it begins a sentence.

          A pair of dashes expresses a more pronounced break in sentence structure than commas, and draws more attention to the enclosed phrase than brackets:
          The party lasted—we knew it would!—far longer than planned
          There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats

          Avoid overuse of the dash in this context and the next; certainly, no more than one pair of dashes should be used in one sentence.

          A single parenthetical dash may be used to introduce a phrase at the end of a sentence or replace an introductory colon. It has a less formal, more casual feel than a colon, and often implies an afterthought or aside:
          I didn’t have an educated background—dad was a farm labourer
          Everyone understands what is serious—and what is not
          They solicit investments from friends, associates—basically, anyone with a wallet

          Do not use it after a colon except in reproducing antique or foreign language typography. Use an em rule spaced to indicate the omission of a word, and closed up to indicate the omission of part of a word:
          We were approaching — when the Earl of C— disappeared

          Asterisks or two or more en rules are also employed for this purpose (see 4.11.1, 4.15).

          An em rule closed up can be used in written dialogue to indicate an interruption, much like an ellipsis indicates trailing off:
          ‘Does the moon actually—?’
          ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—’

          A spaced em rule is used in indexes to indicate a repeated word (see Chapter 19). Two spaced em rules (—) are used in some styles (including Oxford’s) for a repeated author’s name in successive bibliographic entries (see Chapter 18).

          I think that’s it. Still, this should help. :)

  107. Rhett Brinkley, I don’t know if you’ll find your comment of Jan. 12, 2017 and my response nestled into the comments, so I’m including my reply here as well.


    Rhett, the quick answer is no, a comma isn’t always required after said. It depends on what else follows.

    Usually there’s no comma between said and a modifying adverb.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said reverently.

    Usually there’s no comma when there’s an explanation of the way the dialogue was spoken.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said with emotion.

    As is sometimes preceded by a comma and sometimes not.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said as she brushed the baby’s hair.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, as I suspected she would.

    We usually use a comma if an independent clause follows the dialogue tag.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, and I was happy to hear the joy in her voice.

    We usually use a comma if a present participle or participial phrase follows the tag.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, wrapping her arms around the baby.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, sighing.

    We use a comma when an absolute phrase follows the tag.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, her hands waving in the air.

    Some writers use a comma if they tack a second action on after the tag without repeating or adding a new subject, but some don’t. Bill Walsh reminds us that we shouldn’t actually add a second action after a dialogue tag anyway, but fiction writers do it all the time. However, this particular construction can be more acceptable for some sentences than others.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said and covered the baby with a blanket.

    “He’s so sweet,” she said, and covered the baby with a blanket.


    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of too many other options, but let me know if you’ve got another option in mind. I hope this helps.

  108. Ann says:

    Can you use a semicolon in a dialogue tag that interrupts the dialogue to show another character’s reaction? Also note the use of commas and that the second part of the dialogue is a continuation of the first.

    “We just got news that a tsunami hit the coast,” John said; Mary dropped her stack of papers, “wiping out most of the local population.”

    • Ann, you wouldn’t use a semicolon this way because the semicolon itself separates what comes after it from what came before—the semicolon is saying that they’re not part of the same unit of text. A semicolon sets up too strong a break between the different sections of the text. Now, if text was set apart by dashes and then you used semicolons within the dashes to set off sections of only that text, that could work.

      For your sentence, try John said, “We just got news that a tsunami hit the coast”—Mary dropped her stack of papers—“wiping out most of the local population.” This can work, although you may not want to mix Mary’s reaction into John’s dialogue.

      • Ann says:

        Hi Beth,

        That’s exactly what I was thinking (that the semicolon was too strong a break), but I wanted to make sure. I was thinking about using em dashes instead, so I’m happy to see your example.

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply!

  109. Haley says:

    This was outstanding and simply put. I’m definitely putting this in my bookmarks!

    I’m a bit of a hobbyist writer, so I frequent a lot of writing sites, and, lately, there’s this piece of writing advice that’s been floating around, and it confuses me.

    Basically, if the dialogue ends in an exclamation point, or a question mark, you should never use the words “yell” or “ask” in the dialogue tags.

    “Hey!” he yelled.

    “How are you?” she asked.

    I know that “yelled” and “asked” are often used, like “said,” but what I’ve seen said in this piece of advice is that because there’s an exclamation point or a question mark, that alone already denotes that something is being yelled or being asked, therefore those words are simply unneeded.

    I don’t agree with this advice at all because, if that was the case, then you wouldn’t use “said” either when a comma or a period is used, but I was wondering if you heard this advice being given out, and what you think of it.

  110. I’m struggling to punctuate a quote within a quote. In my short story, a young girl meets a giant horned beast in an upside-down forest. He doesn’t know what she is. She says, “I’m a person.” There’s more dialogue and some description before the giant says, “We’ve had all sorts here, but we’ve never had one of you. What is a ‘person’?”

    My question: since he’s referring back to what she said earlier, and only quoting one word, is the punctuation ‘person’?”, or should it be ‘person?'”

    • Scott, your example is right—What is a ‘person’?”

      • Thank you, Beth. I agree with you and I’m going to set it that way. However, I’d like to share a response I got, on this subject, from a professor who teaches precise punctuation to future employees in Homeland Security and the NSA etc. I found her answer puzzling. I’d love to get your thoughts on the specificity of this instance. Perhaps her answer is antiquated. She wrote the following:

        Okay, so yes, he is referring back to the word she used, but she was not using it as anything unusual. You had double quotes on her sentence because it is dialogue. You are quoting her complete thought. He/it is specifying that the word she used was an unusual, unfamiliar word, so it (just the word) gets double quotes when he uses it the first time. He is “setting off” the word.

        The question mark is in the right place. What is a “person”?” I know it looks a little strange, but that’s the correct way to do it.

        • Scott, I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever come across a reason not to switch between single and double quotation marks when quotations and other uses of quotation marks are nestled inside one another, and I can’t think of one.

          Yes, we would use double quotation marks when setting off a word for the first time, but that’s only if it wasn’t already inside double quotation marks. Since it’s inside quotation marks already, we use singles inside the doubles. I’ll check a few sources, but I’ve never heard of a reason to maintain double quotation marks inside double quotation marks.

          • Thanks, Beth. You don’t have to go to all that trouble for me. But it is an interesting conundrum. I went back to her asking for one-hundred percent clarity, and she reaffirmed the use of double quotes. Like you, I’ve never seen it. And as I said, I’ll probably use the single with the double anyway. No one will be alarmed if I do.

        • I may look at a few sources just to see where she might have picked up such a recommendation, but I don’t know anyone else who would recommend such a thing. You’re definitely good with singles inside doubles no matter what the reason for the quotation marks in the first place.

  111. Phil Huston says:

    But outside the ‘ when it’s a book or song title?

    “Who wrote that useless song ‘Harry Kissmoose?'” Other wise I’m going to have to search Scrivener for every ‘” in the manuscript.

    • Sorry, Phil, the question mark is outside in your example too.

      Think about it this way—when you’re quoting within a quote or within dialogue, you’re using the inner quotation marks to set off the quoted material from everything else. If the quoted material is a question itself, then we’ve got a different situation. But when the quoted material is a word, a phrase, or a title that’s not a question and is nestled into a sentence that is a question, you don’t want to imply that the word, phrase or title is the question.

      There are some oddities when the inner quote and the outer one are both questions or the inner is a question (maybe the title of a book contains a question mark) and the outer is not a question, but when the question is outside the inner quotation, the question mark is outside the inner quotation marks as well.

      Let me know if I confused the matter.

      • Phil Huston says:

        Yes and no. What about periods? “Well, she used to say ‘clear as fudge.'” Or is it …fudge’.” ?

        • Periods are different. They go inside.

          Commas and periods go inside; question marks and exclamation points go inside if they’re part of the quoted material, outside the rest of the time.

          (We’re talking about AmE rules, not BrE.) Also, just in case others are reading this comment thread, we’re talking about punctuation where we’ve got quotes inside quotes.

          • Phil Huston says:

            Thank you. I was about to write a “duh, got it” post because I have your PDF on punctuation and six books. And the internet. I just hit the panic button thinking I’d learned a rule backwards. Whew.

  112. Do I use quotation marks when someone is recollecting their own past words or thoughts in a very casual, conversational manner, like in a live radio interview? Here’s an example:

    “It just did something to my little-kid brain, where I’m just like, ‘I think this means more to me.’ ”

    When he says, “I think this means more to me,” he says it like a quote, but it’s probably referring to an unspecific collection of thoughts he was having around that time. Then again, maybe it IS a direct and exact quote. What should be done here?

    Here’s another example:

    “I would always harass him–I was probably around nine or ten–and I’d be like, ‘Let me see the book, let me see the book,’ and I would always open it up to the page where the chestburster’s coming out of Kane’s chest, and I would just stare at it.”

    Do those single quotation marks belong there? What if its referring to a group of people?

    “When I asked if I could join their club they said, ‘Nope, you’re not ready yet.’ ”

    Again, do those single quotation marks belong there? And while we’re at it, what about all the other punctuation in the examples? What is the overall best way to render verbatim real-world speech with all its false starts, crutch words, parenthetical phrases, overly long sentences, awkward grammar, etc.?

    • Emmitt, the short answer is yes—use single quotation marks when quoting someone inside of dialogue. Your examples all come across as direct quotes and therefore can be put inside quotation marks. If you wanted to convey a thought from the past rather than dialogue from the past, you could use italics instead of quotation marks, but the way you’ve written your examples, I’d use quotation marks for all of them.

      As for the overall best way to present wild and woolly speech, if we’re talking fiction, let it remain wild and woolly if it fits the character. But don’t hesitate to make it palatable for readers at the same time. If character dialogue seems authentic but readers find it boring or have trouble understanding it, authenticity means nothing.

      Use long sentences sometimes, but don’t let characters run on for paragraphs without being interrupted. Break up speech with gestures and movement and the words of others. Cut out repetition that doesn’t achieve a useful purpose. Make grammar awkward if the character would.

      Fictional dialogue is only the good stuff of real-world speech, not an accurate depiction of it. You don’t need to include the ums and uhs and so forth.You don’t need to include explanations or every step in a series of directions. Characters don’t need to speak in complete sentences. Nor do they need to answer questions completely. They don’t even have to answer questions at all. They can ignore one another and follow their own agendas.

      You can show hesitation with an ellipsis and show interrupted speech with the em dash, but don’t overuse either bit of punctuation.

      Let some dialogue sentences be only one or two words long and let others go meandering if doing so fits the character, the emotion of the moment, the genre, and the scene’s events.

      No matter how sparse or lush the language, make sure that readers don’t get lost and don’t need to keep rereading in order to make sense of what a character is saying.


      If we’re talking nonfiction and you need to convey real speech, you don’t get to shade the spoken words in ways that create a meaning or tone different from what the speaker said or intended. Still, you can interrupt with action, with gestures of the speaker or listeners, or even with your own thoughts and responses.

      What situation did you have in mind regarding those last couple of questions? Are you talking dialogue in fiction? This topic could use a bit more exploration, but I’d like to know specifically what you have in mind.

      • “What situation did you have in mind regarding those last couple of questions?”

        I was wondering mostly about verbatim and non-verbatim transcription. Does the “Chicago Manual of Style” say anything about transcription work?

  113. Mary says:

    Hi. I believe I saw this addressed earlier, but I want to be 100% sure. My editor wants me to change a song title within dialogue from a single quote to a double. Is that correct?

    Original- “One of my favorites. Behind ‘Sweet Child of Mine.’”
    Edited version- “One of my favorites. Behind “Sweet Child of Mine.””

    • Mary, the original is correct. Quotation marks inside other quotation marks are always different from the outside quotation marks—so doubles for dialogue means that anything with quotation marks inside the dialogue needs to be set off with single quotation marks, and that’s whether we’re talking about a song title or the character quoting someone or any other type of wording that requires quotation marks. We typically do use double quotation marks for song titles, yes. But once we’re inside dialogue, we have to take into account the quotation marks that surround the dialogue.

      If your dialogue was surrounded by single quotation marks (as some use for BrE), anything that needed other quotation marks within that dialogue would require double quotation marks.

      The main purpose of changing from singles to doubles or doubles to singles is to set off quotes within quotes, to clearly show where each quotation begins and ends. We would never find two double or two single opening or closing quotation marks next to each other. So no ” ” and no ‘ ‘. Always ” ‘ or ‘ “.

      Your original punctuation is correct.

  114. Lou Sanders says:

    Does a period come after a bracketed ellipsis if both the sentence is grammatically complete or incomplete?


    “The funds were depleted [. . .].”
    “The funds were depleted when [. . .].”

    Please advise.

    Thank you!!

  115. Lou, the bracketed ellipsis is used to show that material has been omitted from the original text and that the ellipsis wasn’t in that text. It doesn’t matter if the sentence is grammatically complete or not—the quoted material might not have been grammatically complete in the first place. Yet it’s not likely that you’d use the bracketed ellipsis as you did in your second example—what you have left makes no sense.

    The point is that while you could omit any text, it’s likely that you wouldn’t.


    Some recommend including the period after the closing bracket, yet others do not. I can’t see any reason to include a period after the closing bracket if you’re showing that you omitted all the text leading to the end of a sentence.

    Bracketed ellipses are rare in AmE.