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!

Grammar 101: Using capital letters effectively.

Deciding when to use capitals in your writing can be a bit of a fraught issue. Do we use capitals for people’s job titles? What about book titles?

There are a couple of ways to go about deciding this, but my first rule of thumb is:

Use capitals sparingly or they can annoy the reader.

Of course, I don’t mean that you can’t use capitals at all; you can, but current Australian usage suggests we use as few as possible. The Style manual for authors, editors and printers (sixth edition, Snooks & Co 2014) devotes a whole chapter to specific uses of capitals in a wide range of publications from legislation, to scientific terminology and beyond.

I don’t have the space to do that here, but I can give you five key things to think about when deciding if you should or shouldn’t use capital letters.

1. At the start of a sentence

A capital letter is always used at the start of a sentence. Each sentence in this blog post will start with a capital letter and end with a termination mark (question mark, full stop or exclamation mark).

Sometimes though, you may need to start a sentence with the name of a person or organisation who uses lower case letters for their name, such as the band silverchair or the American poet e.e. cummings. If that’s the case, it’s best to rearrange your sentence so you maintain that convention and don’t give the person / group an unwelcome capital letter.

If you really can’t rearrange the sentence, then use a capital letter at the start of the sentence and be prepared to argue your case should anyone question your choice of a capital there.

Using a capital is also the best option when the person’s name at the start of your sentence usually takes a lower case letter and is in another language. For example,

  • de Pompadour would become De Pompadour.

2. Proper nouns

Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places and organisations. They always take capital letters (unless they are exceptions, like e.e. cumings, and silverchair, above). So, you would use capitals for anyone’s given and family names, for example,

  • Genna Hildebrand
  • Valentina Palermo
  • Peter Hoffman.

Place names also start with capital letters:

  • Melbourne
  • Sydney
  • Canberra

The names of organisations and entities usually take capital letters too:

  • the Red Cross
  • Metro Trains
  • the Parliament of Victoria.

3. Nationalities and distinct groups of people

The names of languages, religions and nationalities also take capital letters. So, you would say:

  • Turkish
  • Baptist
  • Australian.

4. Job titles

Official titles take capital letters. So, your business card might say: ‘Sales Manager’ or ‘Receptionist’. Other examples include,

  • the Vice Chancellor
  • the Attorney-General
  • The General Manager.

That said, if you are referring to a group of people who hold the same position and not a specific person, you would use lower case letters. For example,

  • Each department manager should speak to their sales reps and receptionists about the use of capitals in the workplace.

5. Publications

When it comes to titles of publications, there’s a single rule and a whole lot of  personal preference.

The general rule is that the titles of books, magazines, chapters or articles always begin with a capital letter.

After that, there are two choices: minimal or maximal capitalisation.

Minimal capitalisation uses capitals only for the first word of a title and for any proper nouns.

For example,

  • The cakes of victory
  • Crystal clear: water pollution in Australia
  • Zelda’s big adventure
  • Chapter three: when the chooks came home to roost.

Maximal capitalisation uses capitals for all the words in a title except the articles, prepositions and conjunctions (they’re the little words like ‘the’, ‘of’ and ‘and’). For example,

  • Chapter Three: When the Chooks Came Home to Roost
  • Zelda’s Big Adventure
  • Tomorrow When the War Began.

In summary

So, other than for the specific examples above, you can choose whether you use maximal or minimal capitalisation. Just remember:

  • Too many capitals sounds like you’re SHOUTING at the reader, so go easy on those big letters.
  • Current Australian usage tends towards minimal capitalisation.
  • The Style Guide has many more examples and exceptions, so if you’re interested, it’s well worth checking it out.

Thanks for reading and happy writing!


Where do I start?

Where do I start? This is a question I am most often asked by students and clients when faced with the task of writing a document. They know what they want to say, but where to start seems to elude them.

My advice is to start anywhere and see what happens.

This may seem counter-intuitive; after all, no-one wants to waste time writing something only to find they’ve veered off in the wrong direction and then need to spend hours rewriting it. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Getting words on the page can actually help you organise your thoughts, and it’s those thoughts that you are trying to communicate.

So, here’s my four-step process for writing anything:

Firstly, jot down all your ideas. Think of this first draft as a ‘mood board’ or ‘Pinterest’ of ideas. At this stage anything goes – ideas, key points, newspaper articles, pictures, reports – nothing is off-limits, and no idea is a bad one.

Once you’ve got everything you could possibly say on the page, start thinking about who your audience is and what they are likely to want from your document. Are your readers professionals in the field who will understand difficult concepts and are looking for new research data? Or are they members of the general public who are looking for advice and will need jargon explained? Knowing who you are writing for and what they hope to get from your document will help you to refine what you say and how you say it.

For example, if you are writing an annual report for an aged care facility, this will be completely different in tone and content from a promotional brochure for families looking for care for their loved one. The annual report’s purpose is to report on, or perhaps analyse, performance against objectives; whereas the brochure’s purpose is to persuade families that this facility will care for their relative in a professional and respectful way. This second stage of the process takes time and care as it’s where you start tailoring your document so it does what it’s supposed to.

The next stage is to go through the document to make sure that everything flows in a clear and logical manner. One technique I find useful here is to write a three-word summary of each paragraph in the margins. Once I’ve done that, I can see if I’m repeating information in a couple of places or have too many ideas too close together. Cut and paste is your friend here, but only if you go through the final stage as well.

The final step in the process is to put it aside, even for only an hour, and then come back to the document with fresh eyes. This is so you can correct grammar and punctuation problems or make the writing clearer. This is also a good time to ask others to read the document for accuracy and flow. Sometimes we get too close to a document to see the stylistic problems or odd word choices we may make. It’s easy to skip this step, but it is critical in terms of how your document is perceived.

So that’s my four-step process in a nutshell. I hope you find it useful.

Happy writing!


Grammar 101: ‘Lay’ or ‘lie’?

In my teaching, I often find students confusing the two words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’.

It seems to me, that as we’ve forgotten the difference between these two words, we use the one that sounds more polite (and doesn’t imply that someone is telling an untruth).

Hence, I regularly read manuscripts that read:

‘The doctor asked the patient to lay down on the examination table’


‘She was laying on the floor with her head in her hands when her mother found her.’

These are both incorrect uses of the word ‘lay’.

Now, I need to use some jargon here, but it’s not too complicated, I promise.

Firstly, the word lay is what we call a transitive verb. This means it ‘transfers’ the action to another person or thing.

So, you ‘lay a table‘ or ‘lay out a plan‘ or ‘lay a wreath‘.

For the grammar nerds among you, that means laytakes a direct object, as indicated above in bold.

In contrast, ‘lie’ is an intransitive verb. This means that the action is not transferred to someone or something else.

So, you ‘lie on the floor’ or ‘were lying in bed when you got the call’.

A simple way to remember which word to use, is to ask are they reclining, or are they putting something down? Consider:

Peter was laying/lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? No, he was reclining in bed, so we use the verb ‘lie’:

Peter was lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Contrast this with the following:

Peter was laying/lying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? Yes, he was placing his clothes on the bed, so we use the verb ‘lay’:

Peter was laying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

So, there you have it.

Well, not quite. You see, the past tense of these two verbs complicate things a little further, because (deep breath, dear reader) the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’. English is a wonderful language, isn’t it?

So, if you are talking about a time in the past when you were reclining in bed, you’d say:

I lay in bed last night wondering if I’d ever understand the difference between the intransitive verb ‘lie’ and the transitive verb ‘lay’.

If you’ve stopped screaming and are still reading, I suspect you might like to take a note of these forms:

TRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (must take an object)

Present simple I lay out the facts
Past simple I laid out the facts
Future simple I will lay out the facts
Present continuous I am laying out the facts
Past continuous I was laying out the facts
Future continuous I will be laying out the facts
Present perfect I have laid out the facts
Past perfect I had laid out the facts
Future perfect I will have laid out the facts
Present perfect continuous I have been laying out the facts
Past perfect continuous I had been laying out the facts
Future perfect continuous I will have been laying out the facts


INTRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (doesn’t take an object)

Present simple I lie in bed
Past simple I lay in bed
Future simple I will lie in bed
Present continuous I am lying in bed
Past continuous I was lying in bed
Future continuous I will be lying in bed
Present perfect I have lain in bed
Past perfect I had lain in bed
Future perfect I will have lain in bed
Present perfect continuous I have been lying in bed
Past perfect continuous I had been lying in bed
Future perfect continuous I will have been lying in bed

That’s more than you bargained for, I’m sure, but if you print out this list, you’ll never go wrong.

Good luck!


Grammar 101: Latter or last?

We are all familiar with the idea of something being good, something else being better, and a third thing being the best.

Good is the positive form of the adjective, better is the comparative form and best is the superlative form.

So what’s this got to do with the difference between ‘latter’ and ‘last’?

Well, when we are faced with choosing between the ‘latter’ or ‘last’, we are deciding between using the comparative and the superlative forms of the word late (the thing just mentioned).

Just as we use better when comparing two things, we use latter in the same situation.

For example:

  • Of the two books I read this month, I prefer the latter.
  • The second book I read was better than the first.
  • Of the two candidates, Helene is the better qualified.
  • The latter of the two candidates was the better qualified.

We also know that best is used when three or more things are being compared  so we use also last when we are comparing three or more things.

  • Of the six books I read this month, I prefer the last.
  • The last book of the six I read was the best.
  • Of the six candidates, Helene is the best qualified.
  • The last of the six candidates was the best qualified.

One way to remember is to note that ‘better’ and ‘latter’ have the same ‘er‘ ending and that ‘best’ and ‘last’ also share and ending – ‘st‘.

And if it all gets too hard, just remember the saying:

  • The lesser of two evils

All the very best!