Punctuating dialogue is an essential skill, but it can be quite confusing. Here’s my handy guide to it. I’ve tried to make a complex subject as clear and easy as possible.
In novels and short stories all dialogue goes between inverted commas (U.S: quotes). These are double inverted commas/quotes: “…”. We do use single inverted commas/quotes (‘…’) too, and I’ll come to those below.
So, a dialogue sentence would be written like these examples:
“Don’t drop it!”
“That’s not mine. The blue one’s mine.”
“Are you going to that party tonight?”
In the above examples there is a full sentence, including punctuation, inside the inverted commas/quotes. They are, respectively, the exclamation mark, two full stops (U.S.: periods) and a question mark.
All very straightforward, right?
However, when punctuating dialogue, it’s not quite so straightforward.
The problem is that we almost never see a dialogue sentence on its own like that, with no indication as to who is speaking. In practice we’d have something like:
“Don’t drop it!” said John.
“That’s not mine. The blue one’s mine,” said Mary.
“Are you going to that party tonight?” asked Joanna.
Note that punctuation marks like exclamation marks and question marks remain unchanged; the dialogue tag and speaker’s name are just added afterwards.
But where you have full stops/periods, they change to commas, and the full stop/period comes after the speaker’s name. This is because the sentence is now extended beyond the dialogue, to include the dialogue tag and speaker’s name, and so the full stop/period has to go at the end of the sentence, as always.
Dialogue with exclamation marks and question marks are a bit of an fudge as strictly the dialogue shouldn’t end in those as they only come at the end of a sentence and the sentence isn’t over yet. But it’s the only way of showing them, so it’s okay.
Sometimes the speaker comes first. And so you write:
John said, “Don’t drop it!”
Mary said, “That’s not mine. The blue one’s mine.”
Joanna asked, “Are you going to that party tonight?”
Note that there’s a comma after the dialogue tag and right before you start the dialogue. That makes sense if you think about it – if you speak that text aloud, you would pause at that point.
Sometimes you put the dialogue tag in the middle of the dialogue. You might do this because it makes the rhythm of the sentence flow better – this is often the case with longer sentences. So you would have:
“That’s a priceless Ming vase,” John said, “so don’t drop it!”
“I was wondering,” said Joanna, “if you’re going to the party tonight.”
You’ll note that Joanna’s dialogue tag has changed from asked to said and a full stop/period replaces the question mark. This is because she’s now making the statement that she is wondering, rather than asking a pure question. Note also how the dialogue tag occurred in a very natural place.
Our two-sentence dialogue example is punctuated differently:
“That’s not mine,” said Mary. “The blue one’s mine.”
Note the way it’s punctuated, with a full stop/period after said Mary. That’s because that’s genuinely the end of a sentence. The next bit of dialogue is a new sentence and is treated accordingly.
Also note the use of capital letters. In the example of:
The nurse said, “Are you going to operate now?”
you’ll see that her dialogue starts with a capital letter (Are …). This is because it’s the start of the nurse’s sentence even though it’s the middle of the overall sentence.
In other words, there are two sentences, one wrapped in the other, and each needs its own capital letter to begin it.
The next thing we’ve to consider when punctuating dialogue is what happens when a character directly quotes another character. In this case the speaking character’s dialogue is in double inverted commas/quotes as always. But the quoted character’s words are in single inverted commas/quotes. This applies even if the character is quoting him or herself.
Jane said, “I was walking down the road and I met Stephen, and I told him, ‘I’m not talking to you, you so-and-so,’ and he said to me, ‘I’m not talking to you either, so there.’”
You’ll note that at the end of that you have two inverted commas/quotes right beside each other, a single one followed by a double (there’s a very subtle space between the single quote first, and the double quotes) – as the end of Stephen’s quote is also the end of Jane’s.