Grammar 101: How to punctuate dialogue and quotations

There are so many considerations in how to punctuate dialogue or quotations that writers often throw their hands up in despair; however, with a little patience and attention to detail, you can minimise your frustration and produce a professional document that is punctuated correctly, and more importantly, easy to understand.

So, where to start?

Firstly, it’s probably easiest to think about dialogue or quotations being made up of three parts:

  1. the actual words said
  2. the pair of quotation marks, also known as ‘inverted commas’, which enclose the quoted words
  3. a comma to indicate where the direct speech ends and the attribution begins.

For example,

‘The dog ate my homework’, she said sadly.

You can see the spoken words are contained within the quotation marks and there’s a comma that separates the quote from who said the words.

In this case, we are using single quotation marks as recommended by the Australian publication Style manual (Snooks, 6th edition). Note that the comma is outside the quoted material.

However, the way dialogue is punctuated can vary according to the house style of the publication. Using the same example, The Age newspaper would use double quotation marks and place the comma inside the quoted material.

“The dog ate my homework,” she said sadly.

My preference is to use that of the Style manual; you or your organisation may have a different one. However, no matter which punctuation style you choose, it’s important to be consistent.

Where do the attributions go?

You can eliminate the attribution where it’s clear who is speaking.
For example, it’s clear that Thelma is speaking after Mum asks her a question:

Thelma threw her bag on the floor.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Mum.
‘The dog ate my homework.’

You can also start with the attribution. For example:

Thelma said, ‘The dog ate my homework.’

You can end with the attribution:

‘The dog ate my homework’, Thelma said.

And for a more dramatic effect, you can split the speech into two with the attribution in the middle. Note that there are now two commas used to separate the quoted words from the attribution:

‘The dog’, said Thelma, ‘ate my homework.’

What about quoting questions?

Sometimes you need to include quotations that are questions in themselves or you might need to show someone asking about a quotation. In these cases, you need to work out if the sentence itself is a question or if it’s a statement. This will determine where you put the question mark.

Example 1: Simple question

‘Did the dog eat your homework?’ the teacher asked.

In this example, the whole sentence is a statement. The teacher did something. It just happened to be that she asked a question. So, the sentence takes a full stop at the end. However, the quoted material is itself a question, so it takes a question mark inside the quotation marks.

Example 2: Asking about a statement

Did you hear her say ‘The dog ate my homework’?

In this second example, the sentence is itself a question. It’s asking if you heard someone else say something. This means it has to take a question mark at the end. Because the quotation itself is a statement, it doesn’t take the question mark.

Now, those of you over fifty will be quick to point out that there should be a full stop at the end of the quotation, as the person speaking said a full sentence. You would have been taught that the correct way to punctuate this would be:

Did you hear her say ‘The dog ate my homework.’?

However, since the 1980s or thereabouts, this full stop has been deemed as no longer necessary. Perhaps it was the move to typesetting from typewriters or the emphasis on more white space and ‘plain English’ that became popular at that time. Whatever the reason, the removal of the extra punctuation has become the accepted practice.

Example 3: Quoting a question

A teacher may well ask ‘Are you telling me your dog ate your homework?’

In this example, although the entire sentence is a statement and should take a full stop at the end, doing so would make the sentence look cluttered, as in example two, so a full stop is no longer used.

Further information

So, that’s about it for the most common ways to punctuate dialogue and quotations. I hope it was useful, but if you still want to know more, ask me a question below or perhaps dip into the Style manual. It’s a great reference that devotes an entire chapter to punctuating quotations.

Happy writing!

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