Monday, September 17, 2012

Punctuating Dialogue

Friedrich Nietzsche said, "When one has finished building one's house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way—before one began." I am a member of a unique club—the one filled with writers who have stories in their heads. They are stories that we feel are worth reading, but along the way, we have spelling, grammar, and punctuation that are part of the product which are not separate from the swirling, creative ideas. Our readers need those things to be accurate so they can understand the prose. I think Ernest Hemingway had the proper perspective. He said, "My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.” Well, a goal of mine for this blog is I want to help by telling you about those conventions that Hemingway was talking about—but maybe in an unconventional way. While practicing my advanced googling skills (and I can find anything on the internet, including rules for punctuating dialogue), I came across a blogging quote. Irving Stone said, "There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same blogs." Actually, he said "books," but I took a little writer's liberty because…well…who is ever quoted about blogs? I’d like to welcome you to my blog. I hope you “love” it, and I hope it helps you.
 Let me continue by saying that I believe that we writers need to be conscientious of our own craft. “If you take responsibility for yourself,” said Les Brown, “you will develop a hunger to accomplish your dreams.” Writing without consideration of the rules of the craft is akin to an athlete playing his or her sport without knowing the rules of the game. The athlete is responsible for learning the rules that govern his or her craft. The same is true for a writer—at least for a responsible one. “The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence—the ability to make yourself work at your craft…every day,” said Jennifer Weiner.
I know what you’re thinking. “When are you going to get to the rules, oh philosophical one?” you ask.
My reply to you? “Let me use Chris Bradford’s words instead of my own. ‘Impatience is a hindrance. As with all things, if you attempt to take shortcuts, the final destination will rarely be as good.’” You see, oh impatient one, I’ve already been demonstrating the rules as I’ve gone along; however, I will additionally emphasize three rules to complete my first blog entry.

1.      Put your commas and periods before you insert quotation marks.  This is true for split quotations too (see the Les Brown quote above).  Ex. 1 “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others,” said Groucho Marx.
Ex. 2 Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
2.      The dialogue tag is part of your sentence. It doesn’t start with a capital letter unless there are other capitalization rules involved (like I is capitalized or a proper noun is capitalized).  Wrong:  “Men who don’t understand women fall into two groups—bachelors and husbands.” Said Daniel Tosh.  Correct:  “The trouble with being punctual is that nobody’s there to appreciate it,” said Franklin P. Jones.
3.      If there is a quote or another reason to use quotation marks (like the title of a short story) inside a quote, use single quotation marks. Otherwise, always use the normal double quotes.  Ex. Stacey Rourke said, “Jeff LaFerney’s short story, ‘A Race to Stop a Murder,’ is in my Anchor Group anthology called Paranormal Days Gone Awry.”

There is more to quotation marks than I’ve just said, but I’m hoping to have further blog posts, so keep an eye out for The Red Pen, and if you have questions or comments, they are certainly welcome. Have a great day!


  1. Ah yes, the master of the red pen...and the reason you are my editor!
    Great post Jeff!

  2. I like to think that I have a general grip on the basics of grammar...but then I look at something I've written and realise that everything is mucked up.

    There really should be more quotes about blogs. I learn so much through my fellow literary bloggers.

  3. I had a head ache the other day with dialogue...if dialogue comes after a beat instead of a he said, is it a period? I went with period, but would feel better if you said I was correct.
    EX: She rolled her eyes. "I know how to punctuate."

    Is that right?

  4. You are right, Elizabeth. That isn't a dialogue tag. It's a complete sentence.