This spring, I was a coeditor for South 85 Journal, an online literary journal run by Converse College’s MFA in Creative Writing program, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to continue in the fall. While I did love my time spent reading and editing pieces for publication, I was rather dismayed by the amount of grammar-mistake-ridden submissions that came across my computer screen. As a rookie editor, I tried to look past these instances of hideous negligence, but eventually, I was fed up. So in the spirit of cleaner, more appealing writing, I’m starting a tradition of posting grammar tips for fellow writers, and I’m donning it (please, save your applause of my creativity until the end) Grammar Rant Wednesday.
Now, before you hastily begin searching for the unfollow button, I’ll go ahead and promise to keep my ranting to a bare minimum (once a month or so), and I swear, these little blurbs will be worth your time. This first Grammar Rant Wednesday post is dedicated to something simple: dialogue. Improperly punctuated speech seems to be a common problem among creative writers, and if an editor is on the line about accepting your piece, easily avoidable mistakes such as these can mean your work finds its way to the bottom of the recycling bin rather than printed on the pages of a beautiful journal.
First, let’s look at an example (and if you’re wondering, I’ll be pulling quotes from The Grapes of Wrath because, well, I love this book—and because it was the only book within reach when I was writing this):
"You ain't playin' fair," he said.
The most common formula for punctuating dialogue is simple. Begin with an open quote, write out your character’s words, add a comma immediately after, close your quotation with an end quote, attribute the words to the appropriate character, and finish strong with a period. That’s it. Make a habit out of doing this correctly, and before you know it, you won’t even have to think about it.
There are, of course, many variations of displaying dialogue. Sometimes, you don’t need a tag at all because the reader understands who’s speaking without having to be told so. In this case, replace the comma with a period and leave off the attribution:
"You ain't playin' fair."
When it comes to writing dialogue, always put your closing punctuation marks inside the quotation. (As an aside, there is an exception to this rule that rarely applies to dialogue, but I’ll get to it later.) It’s never correct to do this:
"You ain't playin' fair", he said.
"You ain't playin' fair".
And it’s equally incorrect to leave out those closing punctuation marks altogether:
"You ain't playin' fair" he said.
"You ain't playin' fair"
I see this mistake a lot, and I never know if it’s a sign of sloppy writing or a lack of grammar knowledge. Either assumption, though, is not one you want made about your writing.
Moving on to more complicated dialogue. In many cases, dialogue tags are placed in the middle of a quote. These get a little trickier, but still, the basic principles apply.
"Tom," she said sternly. "You take this money. You hear me? You got no right to cause me pain."
All we did there was add two simple pieces of dialogue together. The punctuation is all there correctly: quotation marks surrounding the character’s speech, closing punctuation inside the quotations, a comma before the dialogue tag.
But what happens when we place a dialogue tag in the middle of a single sentence?
"Look," he said, "this ain't no lan' of milk an' honey like the preachers say."
Notice that second comma? Never forget that second comma. If you interrupt a character to add a dialogue tag, you always have to segue back to the dialogue with a comma. Don’t leave it like this:
"Look," he said "this ain't no lan' of milk an' honey like the preachers say."
Make note of the fact, too, that when the dialogue picks back up, the first letter is not capitalized here. If it’s not the beginning of a new sentence, the first letter is not capitalized.
Also, make note that two separate sentences cannot be jammed together with a dialogue tag.
"Tom," she said sternly, "You take this money. You hear me? You got no right to cause me pain."
This is a run-on sentence and is a big mistake. Be intentional with the little details.
You can also tag dialogue at the beginning of the character’s speech if you’d like:
Tom said, "Prayer never brought in no side-meat."
Here, the comma that sets off the tag from the dialogue is outside the quotations, but the closing period is inside.
Again, don’t forget to set off your tags by leaving out that comma:
Tom said "Prayer never brought in no side-meat."
And don’t put the comma inside the quotation:
Tom said ",Prayer never brought in no side-meat."
Questions and Exclamations within Dialogue
When a character asks a question, always put in the question mark:
"You folks aim to buy anything?" he asked.
Don’t leave it out like this:
"You folks aim to buy anything," he asked.
Same with exclamations. They look like this:
"Just read it, don't count it!" he shouted.
Quotes within Dialogue
Sometimes—rarely, I should say—you may have one character repeat something another character says. When you do, it should look like this:
"Last week, Darla said, 'Don't ever speak to me again.'"
The rules for dialogue still apply with one exception: use single quotation marks for the dialogue within dialogue. Want to add a tag to it? It looks like this:
"Last week, Darla said, 'Don't ever speak to me again,'" Paul said.
Notice the closing punctuation mark still goes inside the quotation marks—both of them. This, however, is where that exception to the rule I mentioned earlier comes in.
The only time a closing punctuation mark goes outside a quotation mark is when you are using a question mark or exclamation mark, and they are not part of the quotation. (Jeez, that’s a lot of “marks”.) Here’s an example:
"So, you're telling me Darla said, 'Don't ever speak to me again'?" Paul said.
In this case, “Don’t ever speak to me again,” is not a question; therefore, the question mark is not included inside the single quote. The entire sentence beginning with, “So, you’re…,” is a question, though, so the question mark is placed inside the double quote. So you wouldn’t punctuate it like this:
"So, you're telling me Darla said, 'Don't ever speak to me again?'" Paul said.
It’s confusing, I know. But the good news is, you’ll probably only find yourself in this situation one or two times in your entire creative writing career.
Actions ≠ Dialogue Tags
When using dialogue tags, keep in mind what purpose they serve: to attribute speech to a character. Don’t make this mistake, for example:
"You ain't playin' fair," he walked away.
Notice there is no “said” at the end of the dialogue. Therefore, the tag at the end is not really a tag—it’s the second half of a run-on sentence. If you must include a secondary detail, make sure you tag the dialogue correctly:
"You ain't playin' fair," he said and walked away.
This is correct usage of a dialogue tag. Or you could even do this:
"You ain't playin' fair." Tom walked away.
See the difference?
A few key principles to keep in mind when writing dialogue:
- Always begin with a new paragraph when changing speakers. Generally, you should never let two characters speak in the same paragraph.
- If a character’s dialogue runs on for two paragraphs, do not use an end quote at the end of the first paragraph. Begin the second paragraph with an open quote, and then close that paragraph with an end quote.
Honestly, I understand that punctuating dialogue can be a pain. Even if you know these rules well, you’re left with all sorts of stylistic choices to make as a creative writer. Do I put a tag here? Do I use a strong verb like “wailed,” or do I keep it simple with a “said”? Does my character ask a question or make a statement? These are all questions for you to answer yourself, and your editor may have some suggestions for you, but don’t rely on him/her to clean up your messy dialogue. Learn these rules, and set yourself above the rest of the competition.