Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 3, Interrupted Dialogue

“Whaddaya mean, interrupted? I’m talkin’ like I al—” Nick jumped as a heavy book flew off the shelf behind him and landed at his feet with a thud.

Forgive me, but it’s Halloween. I had to do something seasonal.

As you can see in that first paragraph, there’s an example of a common type of interrupted dialogue: an intrusion of an action into someone’s speech.

You need to provide some kind of ending punctuation to the speech if the interruption occurs in the middle of a word. Here I’ve used an em dash. There’s not much choice, honestly. I can’t use a period, because the sentence isn’t finished. He’s not questioning, so I can’t use a question mark. It’s not an exclamation, either. Nick is cut off in the middle of the word “always” by what I suspect is poltergeist activity (or perhaps a mischievous cat with back-shelf access and strong muscles). I’ll wager you think you need to use a hyphen, but a case like this one uses an em dash.

When an action intrudes into dialogue this way, an em dash signals “Hey! Watch this!” (I’ll even give you chapter and verse. Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition, 6.86.) It goes where all terminal punctuation for speech goes: inside the closing quotes. There is no space on either side of it per Chicago style. (AP is different, but if you’re writing anything other than news copy, you probably aren’t using AP anyway.)

There could be a need for two em dashes, if the action is in the middle of one person’s speech. Then it looks like this:

“So you don’t believe in poltergeists, Nick? Funny, I’d figured you for one of those”—Phoebe waggled her fingers at him like a cartoon witch casting a spell—“paranormal fanboys.”

Sure, you could put that beat after the speech, but then you lose the effect of her waggling her fingers at him while she’s talking. Consider where the beat needs to go, and write accordingly. Play around with it if you need to. No one will ever know how many iterations you went through (unless you whine about it publicly on social media).

Look at that example. It’s a little different from Nick’s interrupted speech, isn’t it? Phoebe finishes a word before that beat shows up, so there’s no need for an em dash before the closing quotation marks of her first speech. Instead, place an em dash after the closing quotation marks and before the beat, and then place another after the beat and before the next opening quotation marks. Those em dashes punctuate the beat, not the speech. The first word of the second direct speech (paranormal) is not capitalized; there’s no reason for it to be. It’s the next word in her sentence. If that beat hadn’t intruded you wouldn’t capitalize it, so there’s no reason to do so now. The normal rules apply, even when there’s an intruding beat.

What about when someone trails off and doesn’t finish their speech? That’s when you want suspension points or ellipses. Here’s how they work:

Nick glowered at her. “I’m not a fanboy. I’ve never been a fanboy. Just because I have a healthy . . .” His annoyance flagged as his gaze moved, drawn to the flickering lamp in the opposite corner of the room. “Was that lit before? I don’t think that was lit before. I could swear that when we came in . . .” He swallowed hard as the lampshade rotated slowly, clockwise.

As usual, the suspension points go inside the closing quotes. They’re punctuating the speech.

She snickered and walked over to the side table, taking the fringed lower edge of the lampshade between thumb and forefinger to stop it. “You’re a nervous Nelly now, aren’t—OH MY GOD!”

Pheobe had been so sure of herself until . . . something happened. I’ll let you decide what it was. That’s a different kind of interrupted speech, which begins with one tone or subject and suddenly switches to something entirely different. As usual, use an em dash to indicate the change.

Those are the main types of interrupted dialogue, the ones you’re most likely to encounter while reading or to use in your writing. The main things to remember are:

  • Use an em dash if the speaker stops mid-word, in the same way as you’d use a hyphen. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash if the speaker’s able to complete a word, but someone or something stops them before they finish their thought. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash to indicate a sharp change in tone or subject within speech.
  • Use em dashes to punctuate the intruding beat. Place them outside the quotation marks and don’t put spaces on either side of them.
  • Use suspension points to indicate faltering or trailing speech. Put them inside the closing quotation marks. (You can use spaced periods as I did, or you can use the single three-dot glyph your word-processing software provides. If you use the glyph, put a space before and after it.)

Paragraph-Spanning Speech

This doesn’t merit a post of its own, so I’ll include it here. When a single speaker’s speech continues over two or more paragraphs, you don’t put closing quotation marks at the end of each. You put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each, and closing quotes at the end of the entire speech. It looks rather like this:

“What did you expect? We come to the town’s most famous haunted house on Halloween, and you thought what? That nothing would happen?” Pheobe was more than a little irritated. She paced around the coffee table in the middle of the parlor like a panther in a pit trap. “And now that something has happened, you want to—I don’t know, call the cops? I’m really disappointed in you, Nick. I thought you had cojones or something.

            “All right, then. You want to leave, we’ll leave.” She strode across the room and grabbed the door latch. It didn’t budge. Rattling it harder, she glanced back to Nick, who was still staring at the lampshade. “HEY! I said you want to leave, we’ll leave. Help me get this door open.”

Will they get the door open? Will Nick snap out of his fugue? And what about Naomi?

I hope these three posts have helped answer the most common questions about punctuating dialogue. Don’t hesitate to contact me either via email (karen.conlin15@gmail.com) or G+ if there’s something I didn’t discuss that you want to know. I’m always happy to explain and educate.


Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 1, Quotation Marks

Why write yet another series of posts about dialogue, when there are myriads out there already for the reading (if one bothers to search)?

Because a) many folks don’t bother to search, and b) I always have a slightly different take on subjects, a take that many people seem to appreciate. So, I’m tackling this subject from the chair of a freelance editor who sees things. Terrible things.

(All right, not always terrible things. Sometimes I see amazing things, uplifting things. But there’s plenty of terrible to go around.)

Let’s get down to business.

I’m breaking this into a series because, let’s face it, there’s just too much to cram into a single entry. There are too many variables, too many options, too many ways to correctly punctuate depending on other active factors. And I’m still deciding, as I write, just how to tackle this in the most meaningful, useful manner. Bear with me; we’ll get there.

I think I’ll begin with the most obvious punctuation for dialogue: quotation marks. I’m a US editor, and while I have experience with UK style, I am writing from a US perspective and using US rules and guidelines. If you need UK rules, you can find them with an Internet search or in any number of style guides readily available at libraries and online. (Tip: They’re not as different as many people seem to think they are. Most of what I have to say here will apply equally to both sides of the pond.)

Part 1: Quotation Marks

“But Karen, we already know this part!” If that were true, I’d not be seeing errors in manuscripts.

Quotation marks enclose direct speech. In the first sentence of this part, I used them to enclose what I hear my thousands of followers saying, as if they were actually saying it. (As if my thousands of followers actually care what I say.) Notice that the terminal punctuation, in this case an exclamation point, goes inside the closing quotation marks. Notice also that there is no additional terminal punctuation outside the closing marks. That exclamation point punctuates the sentence.

Here are a few examples with different kinds of punctuation: some incorporate beats, some use tags. I did not create any examples of interrupted speech. I’ll be covering beats/tags and interruptions in detail in their own dedicated parts.

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing,” Mary said.

(Mary’s statement is a declarative sentence that would normally end with a period. Because it’s in dialogue, and because there’s a tag [Mary said], the period becomes a comma. The terminal punctuation for the entire sentence is the period following “said.”)

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary snorted and shot him a dirty look.

(Here I’ve used a beat—an action—rather than a tag. It’s an issue of personal preference for me. Saying “asked” when there’s a question mark already letting us know someone is asking something is redundant, if you think about it. Why not tell us what the speaker does after she speaks? In this case, Mary’s pretty ticked off about whatever her companion is doing, so she snorts at him and gives him a nasty look. The question mark serves as terminal punctuation for the dialogue, which is contained in quotes as usual. The beat gets its own terminal punctuation in the form of the period at the end.)

“Get out, now!” he shouted as he ran down the stairs.

(The dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation point inside the quotation marks. “He shouted” is a tag, and it’s followed by a modifier in the form of two prepositional phrases [as he ran and down the stairs]. Notice that there is NO COMMA following “shouted” in this construction. There’s no requirement for one, and if I see one there, I will delete it. Now you know. However, look at the next one:)

“Get out, now!” he shouted, running down the stairs.

(The dialogue is exactly the same, but the tag is different. This time, “shouted” is followed by a different kind of modifier—the participle running. The rules require a comma after “shouted” in this construction, and if I don’t see one, I will insert one. Again, now you know.)

What about nested dialogue? You know, as in when someone’s reporting exactly what someone else said? It’s not all that difficult, either. Look at this.

“That’s when he said, ‘Mary, I could throw you off this cliff if I really wanted to.’”

(Mary’s telling someone exactly what was said to her. Therefore, that speech needs to be enclosed in quotation marks as well. We use single quotes for this purpose. In typesetting the final version, it’s often suggested that a thin space be inserted between the final single and double quotes to improve readability. Notice, too, that there’s a comma after “said” and before the opening single quotation mark just as there would be if this were not nested dialogue. The rules don’t change.)

However, sometimes the speech is paraphrased or indirect. Then it looks like this:

“That’s when he said that he could throw me off this cliff if he really wanted to,” sobbed Mary.

(I assume she might well be sobbing, given the threat in the reported speech. Again, as with the first example, Mary’s speech is a declarative statement so the period that would otherwise be there becomes a comma before the closing quotation marks, and the period at the end punctuates the entire sentence. It’s the same concept we use for reported speech outside of dialogue. John said that he’d throw Mary off the cliff. No quotation marks at all, see? Cool.)

All right. This entry focused on quotation marks and terminal punctuation. Enclose direct speech within quotation marks. If direct speech contains quoted direct speech from another character, enclose the speaker’s words in double quotes and the quoted speech in single quotes. If the direct speech is a declarative statement and you’re using a tag after the speech, put a comma before the closing quotation marks and end the entire sentence with a period. If the direct speech is a question, put the question mark before the closing quotation marks. (And if you’re using a tag with that speech that’s a question, put a period at the end of it; that becomes the terminal punctuation for the sentence.)

Next time I’ll discuss more about tags and beats. See you then!