The Craft of Writing

Grammar for Gremlins: How to Punctuate a Conversation, Part One

June 17, 2017

Punctuate Dialogue

Remember when I said your grammar is only wrong if you can’t pull it off?

I stand by that.

But the way some people punctuate dialogue drives me up the fucking wall.

I’m not talking about my clients or anyone else who reads this blog, by the way. You’re all beautiful angels who can do no wrong.

But there are a terrifying number of fiction editors who force their authors to punctuate dialogue all wrong.

And the worst part is it isn’t even their fault.

The Dark Side of Fiction Editing

If you had to learn the proper format for citing essay sources in high school, you are probably familiar with the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook, even if you don’t know it.

The MLA Handbook is a style guide. It tells writers how to handle all the murky areas of grammar, like the issue of the Oxford comma.

Inside most English and liberal arts classrooms, the MLA Handbook might as well be considered “the rules.” Outside, it’s just a list of what the MLA editors prefer.

Different people have different preferences. For example, journalists largely rely on the APA Publication Manual to set the rules. We fiction editors tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style.

So what’s the problem?

The Chicago Manual is a massive text full of rules for everything from formatting numbers to captioning images, but it doesn’t have rules for everything.

Because the Chicago Manual is written for academics, not novelists.

And it has few suggestions on how to punctuate dialogue.

Editors who work in traditional publishing usually have a publisher’s house style guide to fall back on.

I don’t have that. Instead, I depend on rules I’ve developed through attending university creative writing classes, participating in editing forums, and reading a fuckton of novels.

In short, keep in mind that not everything in this article is set in stone. There are probably hundreds of skilled, experienced, professional who would disagree with all or part of it.

They’d be wrong, but see rule one.

How to Punctuate Dialogue

Internal Dialogue

Dialogue is speech. In a novel, there are two types of dialogue, internal and external.

When a character engages in internal dialogue, she speaks to herself. She thinks, and readers see her thoughts on the page.

The Chicago Manual says writers may choose to put this type of dialogue in double quotation marks “or not,” but I find both options unsatisfactory.

The first is virtually indistinguishable from external dialogue. The second is fine, as long as the writer also uses a dialogue tag, but it’s uncommon. There are clearer options.

More often, writers distinguish internal dialogue from the surrounding narration by placing it inside single quotes:

 ‘They’re coming,’ she thought. ‘Where can I hide? Where would a Martian corps not think to look?’ 

Others prefer italics:

 They’re coming, she thought. Where can I hide? Where would a Martian corps not think to look? 

Still others combine the two:

 ‘They’re coming,’ she thought. ‘Where can I hide? Where would a Martian corps not think to look?’ 

I find italics the cleanest and most reader-friendly option, but I can accept single quotes as long as a reader uses them consistently. Combining italics with single quotes is overkill.

External Dialogue

When characters engage in external dialogue, they speak to each other.

Technically, there are two types of external dialogue. Writers can quote the characters directly or simply describe what the characters say.

Here’s an example of that second type of external dialogue from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

Her inquiries after her sister were not very favourably answered. Miss Bennet had slept ill, and though up, was very feverish, and not well enough to leave her room. Elizabeth was glad to be taken to her immediately; and Jane, who had only been withheld by the fear of giving alarm or inconvenience from expressing in her note how much she longed for such a visit, was delighted at her entrance. She was not equal, however, to much conversation, and when Miss Bingley left them together, could attempt little besides expressions of gratitude for the extraordinary kindness she was treated with.

In practice, modern writers eschew telling over showing. As a result, we rarely employ the second type of external dialogue.

The first type always, always, always goes inside double quotes:

 “They’re coming,” she told Mark. “Where can I hide? Where would a Martian corps not think to look?” 

In American English, periods, commas, quotation marks, and exclamation points go inside the closing double quotation mark.

That remains the rule even if the quotation mark isn’t part of the dialogue. For example:

 Had I just heard her say, “They’re coming?” 

But it’s a silly rule, and I recommend you break it. Incorrect punctuation is clearer:

 Had I just heard her say, “They’re coming”? 

Next Time on Grammar for Gremlins

We’ll touch on how to indicate multiple speakers, use dialogue tags, determine the proper location for action that relates to dialogue, and what to do with actions that interrupt dialogue.

I’d originally intended to make this one post, but it’s over 800 words now. And I have strong opinions about dialogue tags, so I’d better cut it off now.

See you next week!

P.S. If you’d like to be notified when part two goes live, join me on Facebook.

How to Punctuate Dialogue

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  • Reply Katie July 7, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    I can’t do, I just can’t agree with breaking the punctuation rule when the punctuation isn’t part of the quote. It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught and seen in many years of reading a lot.

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      Would it change your mind to know that’s actually the rule in the UK? I believe it is slowly becoming the rule here in the US as well. The APA places parentheses, semi-colons, and question marks and exclamation points that are not part of the quoted material after the closing quotation marks, and the Purdue OWL recommends the same.

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