Monday, 6 September 2010

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue can make a piece of text more interesting to read, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it can make the reader feel as though they are there at the scene themselves, eavesdropping on the conversation. It doesn't matter whether the scene is a piece of fiction, or an interview in an article, using dialogue allows the people in your writing to talk directly to the reader, rather than you, the writer, recount secondhand what was said.

Dialogue also benefits a piece of text by breaking it up on the page and making it easier on the eye for the reader.

But as I was marking a few assignments over the weekend, I noticed that there appears to be some confusion concerning punctuation and dialogue.

When using dialogue in a piece of text, you must always have a piece of punctuation before the closing speech marks. If the speech or quote is part of a longer sentence, then you use a comma, before continuing your sentence, like so:

“The weather is absolutely barmy today,” he said, as he found some shade to sit under.

(NOT "The weather is absolutely barmy today", he said, as he found some shade to sit under.")

If your piece of dialogue is the end of a sentence, then use a full stop, or other final punctuation mark, like a question mark or exclamation mark, before the closing speech marks.

Sitting under the tree for shade, he said, “I can’t believe that it can get any hotter.”

(NOT Sitting under the tree for shade, he said, "I can't believe that it can get any hotter".)

If your dialogue is a complete sentence in itself, again, the punctuation mark goes before the closing speech marks.

"What the blazes is going on here?"

Never have a space between the punctuation mark and the closing speech marks, because this may confuse your word processor to insert opening speech marks, not closing speech marks.

Good luck. 


  1. As always useful advice.
    I remember when I first started writing fiction I avoided dialogue because I found the punctuation too tricky! Then I learned by studying published books and copying from the masters. (I mean the punctuation techniques, not the words!)

  2. Aghhh! I made all those mistakes you have just mentioned! I could cringe now! Just recently I had to go through my entire novel to check it all again. Brilliant advice Simon, I always find dialogue difficult. I often just go on in my work as though I am just talking in real life - I forget about punctuation because I get so carried away with a scene. I had to look at other novels to see how it should be done. Your post has summed it up in a few paragraphs. Cheers! Di

  3. Excellent advice Simon.

    When I was teaching we had an author visit to do an event with the children. After his event he sold loads of his books. The week after I was teaching speech punctuation and I said, "If in doubt, pick up any book and you can check to see what the correct punctuation should be."

    I proceeded to pick a book from the book corner to show them. I choose a book from our visiting author the week before. I flicked through the book and was shocked. I then realised he must have been self-published. All the punctuation for speech in his book was wrong.

    This particular author use to be an English teacher!

  4. Useful and timely advice. Ive recently entered the New Voices competition and double checked my dialogue after reading your blog - and yes, the mistakes were there!

  5. barmy weather? bonkers. I'd call it balmy. Good advice re punctuation though!