How to Punctuate Dialogue

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

It’s easy for fiction writers to get tripped up on when to use a period, where that comma should go, and how to even use all the other forms of punctuation correctly. The truth is, you don’t need to know what every piece of punctuation does when you’re writing fiction. But you do need to know a few important aspects (your proofreader or copy editor can handle the rest).

(If you’re curious about why you should even hire a proofreader or copy editor, stay tuned—I’ll be writing about that soon.)

Today I’ll be walking you through the basics of how to punctuate your dialogue correctly.

Although it might seem nitpicky, incorrect punctuation in dialogue can have a significant negative effect on your writing. Choosing the correct form of punctuation for your dialogue will make your writing smoother, more professional-looking, and easier to understand.

First up is dialogue ending with a tag.

When writing a snippet of dialogue that ends with a tag (a word such as said or shouted), you should end the dialogue with a comma. For example:

“I love watching football,” Chris said.

When writing a question or exclamation, use a question mark or exclamation mark without a comma. For example:

“Do you like watching football?” Chris asked.

(Note that I could have swapped “asked” for “said” and still been correct.)

Next up is dialogue split by a tag.

When writing a sentence that is divided by a tag, use a comma after the snippet of dialogue (even if a comma wouldn’t naturally go there without the tag in place) and after the tag. For example:

“I almost hate being a Redskins fan,” Chris said, “because they haven’t been good in a long time.”

If the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence, use a period after the tag and start the subsequent sentence with a capital letter. For example:

“I love the Redskins,” Chris said. “I’ve been a fan since I was five years old.”

Next up is ending a piece of dialogue with an em dash.

You should use an em dash for dialogue that is cut off. Make sure that you don’t use any other punctuation with the em dash. (An em dash is the longest of dashes: – is a regular dash, – is an en dash, and — is an em dash. If you want to know when–and how–to use all these different dashes, let me know in the comments.) For example:

“I love—”

“We don’t talk about Dallas in this household, and you know it.”

Next up is dialogue that trails off. You should use ellipses ( … ) in these situations.

“But I don’t…” He averted his eyes. “I know you hate Dallas. You don’t have to keep reminding me about it.”

What punctuation do you struggle with the most? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll address it in the future.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (complement vs. compliment).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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