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How to Punctuate Dialogue

September 23 2017
September 23 2017

The greatest technical issue I’ve come across recently on Critique Circle, is that many people do not know how to punctuate dialogue. It’s a new problem, and is widespread. If you want to be a writer, though, it’s basic to the craft, and there is no flexibility. And it’s quite simple.

A section of dialogue consists of up to three elements. A gesture and/or expression; the quote; and a dialogue tag. Some may have all three, some may have only one. Let’s consider them each.

Dialogue Tags in General

A dialogue tag is the “he said,” or “she asked” (etc.) part of a line of dialogue. These should be used only to the extent necessary for the reader to keep track of who’s talking, or to include an expression or gesture.

If there are only two people involved in the conversation, it’s not necessary to use a tag on every bit of dialogue. Just every four or five lines, or as you think necessary to help the reader keep track. If there are more than two people, then you’ll need it more often, perhaps every line.

A dialogue tag is separated from the quote with a comma:

“Nice weather we’re having,” she said.

She said, “Nice weather we’re having.”

Or by the punctuation mark if the tag comes after a question or an exclamation:

“What time is it?” he asked.

The tag is not capitalized unless you use a proper name, rather than a pronoun, even when it follows a question mark or an exclamation point.

Gesture or Expression

He nodded; she smiled; she raised a hand; he frowned; etc. These would normally (or often) come before the quote, and is separated from the quote by a period.

Example 1:

He smiled. “Thank you.” (Note that in the US, the comma goes inside the quote marks. In other places in the English-speaking world, it may go outside.)

The “He smiled” is a separate statement and stands alone, and is therefore separated from the quote with a period.

Sometimes the gesture or expression comes after the quote, in which case it is written as follows:

“Thank you.” He smiled.

Written this way, it means that he said it, and then smiled, in which case, the quote is ended by a period, followed by the “he smiled.”

If, on the other hand, he was smiling as he said it, then it should be:

“Thank you,” he said, smiling.

That’s all there is to it. Take a look at your favorite novel and see how they did it.


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