Dialogue is a fantastic way to bring your readers into the midst of the action. They can picture the main character talking to someone in their mind’s eye, and it gives them a glimpse into how your character interacts with others. Check out 5 Tricks for Using Dialogue to Write Truly Captivating Characters.
That said, dialogue is hard to punctuate, especially since there are different rules for different punctuation marks—because nothing in English grammar is ever easy, right?
We’re going to try to make this as easy as possible. So we’ll start with the hardest punctuation marks to understand.
Periods and Commas
For American English, periods and commas always go inside your quotation marks, and commas are used to separate your dialogue tag from the actual dialogue when it comes at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle. Here are a few examples:
Nancy said, “Let’s go to the park today since the weather is so beautiful.”
“Let’s go to the park today since the weather is so beautiful,” she said.
“Let’s go to the park today,” she said, “since the weather is so beautiful.”
British English puts the periods and commas inside the quotation marks if they’re actually part of the quoted words or sentence. Consider the following example:
- She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, the theme song from The Wizard of Oz.
In the above example, the comma after “Rainbow” is not part of the quoted material and thus belongs outside the quotation marks.
But for most cases when you’re punctuating dialogue, the commas and periods belong inside the quotation marks.
Question Marks and Exclamation Points
Where these punctuation marks go depends on the meaning of your sentence. If your main character is asking someone a question or exclaiming about something, the punctuation marks belongs inside the quotation marks.
Nancy asked, “Does anyone want to go to the park today?”
Marija said, “That’s fantastic news!”
“Please say you’re still my friend!” Anna said.
“Can we just leave now?” asked Henry.
But if the question mark or exclamation point is for the sentence as a whole instead of just the words inside the quotation marks, they belong outside of the quotes.
Does your physical therapist always say to his patients, “You just need to try harder”?
Do you agree with the saying, “All’s fair in love and war”?
Single Quotation Marks
Only use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes, such as when a character is repeating something someone else has said. Single quotes are never used for any other purpose.
Avery said, “I saw a sign that read ‘Welcome to America’s Greatest City in the Midwest’ when I entered town this morning.”
“I heard Mona say to her mom, ‘You know nothing whatsoever about me,’ ” said Jennifer.
Some experts put a space after the single quote and before the main quotation mark like in the above example to make it easier for the reader to understand.
Here’s a trickier example of single quotation marks, question marks, and ending punctuation, just to mix things up a little.
- Mark said, “I heard her ask her lawyer, ‘Am I free to go?’ after the verdict was read this morning.”
Perfectly clear, right? Let us know some of your trickiest dialogue punctuation situations in the comments below.
Interested in other posts from our "Grammar School" series?
- Show, Don't Tell. What Do They Mean Anyway?
- What is a Cliché? And Why Should You Avoid Them?
- What are the Different Types of Verbs?
- What are Overused Words?
- What is POV? And How Do You Choose the Best POV for Your Story
- What is a Clause?