Punctuate Your Point, Correctly: How to Punctuate Dialogue

Posted by Alison on 7/27/16 9:30 AM

They may seem small, but punctuation marks can make all the difference in how we read and understand the English language. The title of what has become an iconic little book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, exemplifies the level of ambiguity that can result from the presence or absence of a comma. This chapter focuses on several oft-mistaken categories of punctuation marks – the comma, the semi-colon, the apostrophe, quotation marks – and how, when, and where to use them properly.

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Part I: Dialogue

Punctuating Dialogue: "Where do the quotation marks go?" "Who's to say?"

I am an English teacher, or an aspiring one. In the high school where I completed my student teaching, I spent quite a lot of my time teaching and correcting certain topics of punctuation that for whatever reasons consistently gave students a hard time. One of the most common of these topics was how to punctuate dialogue, which came up in every creative or personal narrative assignment.

The following is an overview of best practices for determining where the quotation marks go, when to add single quotes, and how to indicate a change in speaker. "Ready?" Ok!

To illustrate the rules for punctuating speech, I first showed my students this scene from The Social Network because it provides an exemplary exchange of dialogue between two characters with rapid back and forth, questions, and statements. The task subsequent assignment was for students to rewrite the text from this scene, copied in the transcript below, in the form of a dialogue.

The transcript for part of the scene is as follows:

Gage: Do I have your full attention?

Mark Zuckerberg: [stares out the window] No.

Gage: Do you think I deserve it?

Mark Zuckerberg: [looks at Gage] What?

Gage: Do you think I deserve your full attention?

Mark Zuckerberg: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.

Gage: Okay – no. You don't think I deserve your attention.

Mark Zuckerberg: I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try – but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

[pauses]

Mark Zuckerberg: Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

What do we need to know in order to convert this transcript into dialogue?

  • Capitalize the first letter of a quote.
  • Place the opening quotation marks before the first word that is spoken.
  • Place the final quotation marks after the last word that is spoken – the placement of punctuation marks inside or outside the quotation marks depends on the following factors: 

1. If the spoken sentence ends in “!” or “?” then put the punctuation mark inside the quotes:

“Do I have your full attention?” Gage said.

In this case, Gage is asking a question. Since the question mark is necessary to convey the full content of what he is saying, it is included within the quotation marks to indicate that the question mark is part of what is spoken.

Immediately after the quotation marks, the dialogue tag (he said/she said/they asked, etc.) indicates who spoke the preceding sentiment, and that is followed by end punctuation to conclude the sentence.

2. If the sentence being quoted ends in a “.” then drop the period and replace it with a comma before the final quotation marks:

“I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no,” Mark Zuckerberg said.

If there is a dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence, put a comma inside the quotation marks of the first part of the quote, and after the dialogue tag:

“I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition,” Mark started, “and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.”

3. When the dialogue tag comes before the quote, put a comma before the quotation marks:

Mark answered, “No.”

You can also add action before the dialogue tag:

Staring out the window, Mark Zuckerberg answered, “No."

4. When you need to change speakers, start a new paragraph for each speaker: 

“Do you think I deserve it?” Gage persisted.

“What?” said Mark, looking back at Gage.

“Do you think I deserve your full attention?” Gage repeated. Mark paused and considered his response before continuing.

5. When the same speaker has a lot of speech at once, separate the speech with paragraph indents but do not close the quotation marks:

When the same speaker has multiple paragraphs of spoken text, do not put final quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph. Add opening quotation marks again at the beginning of the second paragraph.

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

"Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” Mark concluded, refusing to break eye contact.

With our expert edits, the complete dialogue would look like this:

“Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?” asked Gage.

Staring out the window, Mark Zuckerberg answered, “No."

“Do you think I deserve it?” Gage persisted.

“What?” said Mark, looking up at Gage.

“Do you think I deserve your full attention?” Gage repeated. Mark paused and considered his forthcoming response.

“I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition,” he started, “and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.”

With a confused look on his face, Gage replied, “Okay - no. You don't think I deserve your attention."

“I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.

"Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” Mark concluded, refusing to break eye contact.

Don't miss out on next month's installment of our grammar blog!  Want more tips from our New York and Cambridge English tutors?  How about some advice from the one and only grammar guru?

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Tags: expository writing, English