Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

talking.jpgDo you struggle with the proper punctuation for what people say in your stories? You’re not alone. Many writers labor to get this right. Let’s start with a review of the rules.

Punctuation Rules for Dialogue

1. Start with a quote (“) when someone begins speaking.

2. If what the person said is followed by an attribution (i.e. he said), end the dialogue with a comma and another quote mark(,”).
“I went to the store,” Ralph said.

3. When what was said is a question, use a question mark, quote mark (?”).
“Would you please buy milk?” Mom asked.

4. If instead of an attribution (i.e. she said), there’s an action, the dialogue will end with a period and a quote. (.”)
“Look what I found at the mall.” Mary pulled earrings out of the paper sack.

5. If a question has an action, still use the question mark, quote mark (?”).
“Would you please buy milk?” Mom handed me a five.

6. After an action or an attribution when the same person starts speaking again, use another beginning quote.
“I went to the gym,” Hector said. “Manuel and I played horse.”

7. Quotation marks come in pairs, a left and a right. (“…”) A quote mark without it’s mate is incorrect.

8. If the person speaking addresses someone by name, their name is separated by a comma.
“Hey, John, come here.”

9. Each sentence does NOT have a quote mark at the beginning and end when the same person continues speaking, unless interrupted by an action or an attribution.
“We went to Grandma’s house. I played with her dog. The cat ran.”

10. Generally, what one person says is all in one paragraph.
“I took my basketball to the gym,” Hector said. “Manuel and I played horse. Then Tommy and Kate showed up so we played two on two.” Hector smiled. “Manuel and I won.”

11. Start a new paragraph when a new person speaks.
“Hey, Mama?” I asked. “Can I go to the park?”

“Yes, you may.” She looked at her watch. “Dinner is in an hour. Make sure you are back in time, Danika.”

“My stomach will remind me.” I grinned and she grinned back.

Mainly, it takes practice, practice, practice to get the rules set in your brain. Here are a few suggestions that might help you engrain these rules.

Practicing Dialogue Punctuation

1. Print out your short story or chapter of your book. Take different colored highlighters or colored pencils and mark what one person says in one color. Exclude any actions, punctuation, or he said or asked, etc. Use another color for another person’s dialogue. When everyone’s dialogue is colored, look for these things:
• Quote marks at beginning and end of what each person says.
• Comma or question mark within quote mark right before an attribution (i.e. he asked, she shouted).
• Period, question mark or exclamation mark–use the latter sparingly–within quote mark when it is followed by an action (i.e. Dad slammed the door.).
• Is what someone says all in one paragraph before someone else speaks? Or before a change of scene?
• Comma(s) separating the name of a person being spoken to.

2. Take a published short story or book chapter with lots of dialogue and retype it to get the flow of how punctuation, action, dialogue, etc. mix in.

3. Turn on your word processor’s “Grammar Checker.” It can be very annoying as it usually isn’t set up for fiction, but it may help point out where your punctuation is wrong. Use the help option in your word processor to find out how to turn it on and how to customize it for your version of the software.

A lot of work? Yes. But work on it enough and the rules of dialogue punctuation will come automatically to your fingertips.

*picture courtesy of Mary R. Vogt and

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Attribution or Action?

photo courtesy of Mary R. Vogt
teens talkingIn a discussion of dialogue punctuation, someone recently asked me, “But where is the line drawn between an attribution and an action? For example: she laughed, she promised, she sighed, she groaned, etc. Are those treated as attributions or actions?”
Laughter, sighing, groaning are actions. We can’t laugh words. We sigh before or after we say a word(s). The more I think about it, groan is a tricky one. I can groan one word, “Mom!” or “Oh!,” but I couldn’t groan a whole sentence of words. I can simply groan. So another way to think about it, does the action stand alone or make sense without the words the character said? She laughed, groaned, sighed can stand alone. “She said” leaves us wanting to know what she said.
Promised is another tricky one. You make a promise and you state a promise. So when it is used with dialogue, I would consider it an attribution. Perhaps the simple rule would be if you can replace said with the verb without changing the meaning, it’s an attribution.
After reading my article on “Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation” on the Institute for Literature’s website, someone else asked, “What about when the dialogue is broken by an attribution? How do you punctuate it then?” It’s easiest to show with examples.
“Dad,” I said, “that was a lame joke.” Here the attribution interrupts the sentence at a natural pause. The punctuation is commas.
“Janie, that was so stupid,” he said. “I can’t believe you said that.” Here the attribution is at the end of one sentence before another begins. The punctuation is a comma at the end of the dialogue and a period at the end of the sentence.
Either way, you want your attribution at a natural place. You’ll probably hear where a good break is when you read it aloud.
What about interruptions to dialogue? That is usually indicated with an “em dash”–type in double dashes and your computer usually will convert.
“Stop kicking my seat, Jo–”
“I’m not!” Jonah said. “It’s Liam.”

This works with either dialogue that interrupts or with action.
“Mom, how come Willy gets to–OW!” Leslie grabbed her arm. “Hey, no punching!” She glared at her brother.
“Hey, let’s go to the movie and th–”
Katie put her hand over my mouth. “Shh, Mrs. Wilson’s coming.”

Pauses in the speaker’s dialogue are another issue. If he interrupts his own words or deliberately leaves something out, use an ellipses.
“I wanted to ask her, but . . .” He shrugged.
“Did you get problem six . . . omg, there he is!” Tanya clutched her shirt somewhere near her heart.
If in doubt about punctuating attributions or actions, you can always looks at dialogue in published books or short stories. A resource I like is the book Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them by Harry Shaw. My 25-year-old copy is so well-used it’s falling apart!
If you have more questions or comments, use the comment box.