Dialogue Punctuation

Punctuation of dialogue is one of the main trans-Atlantic battlegrounds of English-language writing. Accusations of illogical placement and inconsistencies boom across the water, rockets glare red and waves are ruled, and a lot of virtual ink is spent on keeping the controversy going.

It’s a diacritic version of the Hokey Cokey – Americans put something in quotation marks, the Brits leave it out, then a publisher’s style guide shakes it all about. You do the double quotation marks, then the single inverted commas, and that’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?

Quotation marks or inverted commas

Back in the days of the manuscript, scribes would make a notation in the margin, the diple (>), sometimes doubled, to highlight a section of text that was important. Over time these marks slipped into the text, driven by innovations in early English novels, wrapping themselves specifically around quoted material and looking more like the open (“) and closed (”) quote marks we recognise today, though often on the same level as the text.

Gradually, in British usage, the marks drifted upward to the top of the line, while in other languages (like French or Russian) they morphed into guillemets («»), staying level with the text. By the nineteenth century, it was agreed that double quote marks would highlight direct speech, and that single quote marks would be used for reported speech.

Now usage has been codified into a couple of styles. Generally, American writers continue to use the double version, but before the twentieth century had arrived, British writers decided to reverse polarities and use the single quote marks for direct speech instead.  Perhaps one can put it down to an insular mentality.

What about the rest of the punctuation?

There is also some disagreement about where the various commas and full stops that are involved in the reported speech should be placed.

The American style prefers all punctuation to be included in the quote marks. (You’ll notice too that the quote is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma before the quote mark.)

He told me, “I’m gonna drive you to the outer limits of your sanity.”

However, in British English, the punctuation appears outside.

She seethed, ‘I’m British, and I don’t care for your tone’.

Of course, there are complications with the British version. For example, if the quoted speech contains a comma or full stop itself, this is contained within the quote.

‘I’m British,’ she seethed, ‘and I don’t care for your tone’.

Compare this with a sentence without a comma.

‘What you fail to appreciate’, she whispered, ‘is that I understand the situation precisely’.

Again, though, if the quoted text contains a full stop, the attribution (he said, etc.) will end with a full stop before the text picks up again.

‘I’m British,’ she seethed. ‘I have no wish to punctuate my quotes that way.’

Question marks in dialogue

Question marks should also be handled carefully.

‘Do you know who I am?’ the actress asked.

Sometimes, though, the question is not actually being asked within the quote, so it should remain outside.

Have you seen ‘Mulholland Drive’?

Other punctuation used in dialogue

Other marks can be used to reflect the less regular patterns of speech (or interior monologues) like the ellipsis (…), which shows when the voice just trails off into nothing or there is a gap, and the em-dash (—), which shows an interruption (Why I oughta—!). The comma is also put to work here, separating incomplete sentences and phrases to show pauses in speech.

Punctuation in drama

If this all seems too complicated, you could write plays instead, and put a colon after the character’s name each time.

Writer 1: Sounds fair.

Writer 2: Yep, I can go along with that.