Home Bindoon Bookworm Back to basics: dialogue punctuation

Back to basics: dialogue punctuation


Right off the bat I’m going to say that I know that this article is only going to appeal to a niche demographic. Writers, students, and grammar nerds are probably the only people who will really get any enjoyment or help from it but maybe, just maybe, it’ll appeal to one other person and I’ll be able to die happy. Or you’ll just all find me a right bore and will avoid me at social gatherings…

Dialogue punctuation is one of those things that when done well, you don’t even notice it. When done poorly, well, it’s been enough to have me closing a book and lamenting that I spent money on this, why the hell was it not edited properly???

The very basics of dialogue punctuation are taught to us quite early on. The rules are quite simple: begin a new paragraph to indicate a new speaker, use quotation marks to denote dialogue (different publishers use either single or double quotation marks), and make it clear who is speaking so the audience doesn’t get confused.

After that it can start to get tricky and anyone who isn’t an author or a nerd can start to have trouble following. If you are using a dialogue tag, such as said, replied, shouted, whispered then before the quotation marks you use a comma, not a period.
“This is an example of doing exactly this,” Annie explained.

If there is an action, then you would use a period.
“Here is another example.” Annie stopped typing and wondered if she’d bored her readers to death yet.

When interrupting dialogue, either with an action or a thought, an em dash is used. An em dash is the longest of the dashes (there are also hyphens and en dashes) and when using in Word you have to do a funky keyboard manoeuvre to create it (alt+ctl+minus or to be extra confusing hold down alt and type 0151).

“Now, have we all grasped the em” — Annie ducked as someone threw a rotten tomato at her — “dash?”

Then there is having a character trail off as they’re speaking or forgetting what they were going to say. In this case we would use ellipses preceded by a space. For example:
“I’ve always wondered what …” Annie frowned, wiping tomato juice from her face.

Lastly, we’ll quickly cover using names within dialogue, including endearments. You always use a comma before the name, as well as afterwards if it’s used in the middle of a sentence.

“The truth is, Annie, no one really cares about dialogue punctuation.”

“Well, you’ve just broken my heart, sweetie,” Annie replied.

This has just touched the surface and if you want to know more, there are many awesome websites that go into greater detail. For everyone else, well, I’ll allow you a brief period of time to grieve for the five minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.