Dialog punctuation – part 1

9/4/2007 5:38:37 PM

I’ve been betaing for a young writer who has been generally panned and even flamed when she’s posted a story. The chapter I just beta’d was rife with errors in punctuation, especially in her sentences. So I came up with a basic dialog lesson that I thought I’d share here, as well. Remember, this is very basic, and doesn’t cover every situation. But it should work for most dialog.

The format for dialog punctuation goes likethis:

 “I want to be alone,”  she said.
(this is the dialog)(this is the dialog tag)


 You have to think of the dialog and the tag as one whole unit, one whole sentence. When you think about it like that, you can see exactly where your full stop, the period, will come. If you put a full stop between the dialogue and the tag, you are, in effect, making TWO sentences, each with its own subject and verb.

Here are the three main rules of punctuating dialog, and their most common exceptions.

  1. Put a comma after dialog.
    Exception: unless you’re using a question mark or exclamation point.

  2. The first word of a dialog tag is always lowercase.
    Exception: unless it’s a proper noun, like a name.

  3. Put a period after the dialog tag.
    Exception: unless it’s a continuation of the previous line.

Example of exception 1.

 “I want to be alone!” she screamed.

Example of exception 2.

“I want to be alone,” Melinda said.

Example of exception 3.

“So,”  she said, “will you leave me alone now?”

A line of dialog that has two complete sentences in it will have a period after the dialog tag.

“I want to be alone,” she said. “Please go away.”

One caveat: the dialog punctuation should go inside the close quotation marks. I’ve seen a lot of our friends across the pond put the comma outside the close quotation marks, like this:
“I want to be alone”, she said.

I don’t know if it was a part of the curriculum at one time or what, but it usually is the comma and not the question mark or exclamation point. Since punctuation is fairly standard in English, no matter which of the marks you use, it should go inside. 

Hopefully this will be a help to those truly puzzled by sentence punctuation.



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