Dialogue: how to punctuate it

This article is about dialogue in fiction. We’ll cover quotations in non-fiction another time.

Dialogue is different from plain narrative. It tells you directly what a character said, whether they were interrupted, trailed off or completed what they were going to say. It can tell you whether the character declared something, asked something or exclaimed something. You, as a writer, can do all this with punctuation, if you know how to use it properly.

Dialogue is represented in writing by direct speech. Direct speech is indicated by quotation marks (also called speech marks or quotes). In British publications, single quotes ‘…’ are typically used (1). In American publications, double quotes “…” are typically used (2).

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ said Sam.
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the mat,” said Sam.

At the end of an utterance (or other quote), commas are like full stops.

In the examples above, Sam speaks a complete sentence, so you might expect a full stop (period) at the end of the utterance. However, the utterance is contained within a sentence, so there cannot be a full stop; instead, there is a comma. The comma indicates that the utterance is finished but the sentence containing it carries on.

If the sentence containing the utterance is a complete sentence (e.g. if there is no speech tag like said Sam), the comma is replaced with a full stop (3,4) as might be expected. Note that the full stop is inside the closing quotation mark.

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the mat.’ Sam smiled.
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the mat.” Sam smiled.

The above rules (1–4) apply even if a complete sentence is not uttered (5–8).

British English
  1. ‘Hi,’ said Sam.
  2. ‘Hi.’ Sam smiled.
American English
  1. “Hi,” said Sam.
  2. “Hi.” Sam smiled.

Interruptions

Often, speech is interrupted. This can be because the writer is using literary devices such as speech tags or action beats. Alternatively, the character might be interrupted by someone else talking over them or something unexpected occurs.

Speech tags and action beats

In British English, if the interruption falls at the end of a sentence, a comma is placed inside the speech mark at the end of the first part of the utterance (9). The second part is punctuated as in (3) and (6).

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ said Sam. ‘He did not sit on the chair.’
  2. ‘However,’ said Sam, ‘the cat sat on the mat.’
  3. ‘The cat’, said Sam, ‘sat on the mat.’
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the mat,” said Sam. “He did not sit on the chair.”
  2. “However,” said Sam, “the cat sat on the mat.”
  3. “The cat,” said Sam, “sat on the mat.”

In British English, if the interruption falls mid-sentence where a comma would naturally fall (e.g. after a sentence adverb or at either end of a defining clause), the comma is placed inside the quotation mark at the end of the first part of the utterance (10). A comma follows the speech tag. The second part of the utterance continues with a lower case letter at the start, and it is punctuated at the end as in (3) and (6).

In British English, if the interruption (e.g. said Sam) falls in the middle of a sentence where a comma would not naturally fall, the first part of the utterance has the comma outside the quotation marks (11). A comma follows the speech tag. The second part of the utterance continues with a lower case letter at the start, and it is punctuated at the end as in (3) and (6).

In American English, the comma always falls inside the closing speech mark of the first part of the utterance. The speech tag is followed by a full stop when the first part is a complete sentence (12), otherwise by a comma (13,14). The second part of the utterances is punctuated as in (2) and (8).

If the utterance is interrupted by an action beat, which is effectively a snippet of narrative, treat each piece as a separate sentence (15,16) with full stops inside all the closing quotation marks.

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the mat.’ Sam stood up. ‘He did not sit on the chair.’
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the mat.” Sam stood up. “He did not sit on the chair.”

Interruptions by other characters and events

Find out how to type an em rule (em dash).

When the character is interrupted by someone else talking or by something unexpected happening, follow the last word with an em rule — (an em dash in American English), with no space on either side, followed by the closing quotation mark (17–20). There is no comma or full stop.

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the—’
    ‘The cat is out,’ said Phil.
  2. ‘The cat sat on the—’
    The cat yowled and jumped onto Sam’s knee, claws ablaze.
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the—”
    “The cat is out,” said Phil.
  2. “The cat sat on the—”
    The cat yowled and jumped onto Sam’s knee, claws ablaze.

Note that you don’t need to say Sam was interrupted or started speaking but couldn’t finish because the em rule says it all.

Trailing off

Find out how to type an ellipsis.

Sometimes, a character will stop talking of their own accord. Perhaps they’ve realised they don’t know how to finish their sentence or they don’t want to finish their sentence. An ellipsis … at the end of what the character does manage to utter indicates they didn’t finish their sentence (21,23). There is a space after the last word and before the ellipsis. There is no space between the ellipsis and the closing quotation mark.

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the …’
  2. ‘The cat stood … sat on the mat.’
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the …”
  2. “The cat stood … sat on the mat.”

Ellipses also show pauses in speech (22,24) where the character trails off perhaps to think about where their sentence is going or to correct themselves or to let the person on the other end of the phone speak. There is a space on each side of the ellipsis.


That covers declarative sentences, where a character states something. But what about questions and exclamations?

Questions

Questions are indicated with a question mark inside the closing quotation mark (25–32). A question mark denotes the end of a sentence.

British English
  1. ‘Where is the cat?’ said Sam.
    ‘On the mat,’ said Phil.
  2. ‘Where’, said Sam, ‘is the cat?’
  3. ‘Where is the cat?’ said Sam. ‘I thought he was on the mat.’
  4. ‘Where is the cat?’ Sam looked around. ‘I thought he was on the mat.’
American English
  1. “Where is the cat?” said Sam.
    “On the mat,” said Phil.
  2. “Where,” said Sam, “is the cat?”
  3. “Where is the cat,” said Sam. “I thought he was on the mat.”
  4. “Where is the cat?” Sam looked around. “I thought he was on the mat.”

Note that if you write a statement, you don’t need to tell the reader it wasn’t a question (33,36): the absence of a question mark is enough to show the reader it’s a statement (34,37).

British English
  1. ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ said Sam. It wasn’t a question.
  2. ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ said Sam.
  3. ‘The cat sat on the mat?’ said Sam.
American English
  1. “The cat sat on the mat,” said Sam. It wasn’t a question.
  2. “The cat sat on the mat,” said Sam.
  3. “The cat sat on the mat?” said Sam.

Other times, a character might ask a question, but structure that question as if it’s a declarative sentence (35,38), perhaps to indicate disbelief on the speaker’s part. The presence of the question mark makes it obvious to the reader, who therefore doesn’t need telling that it’s a question.

Exclamations

Exclamations should be used very sparingly. Leonard (2001: 33) permits ‘no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose’, which isn’t very many at all. Using a lot of exclamation marks risks shrieking and melodrama.

Nevertheless, if you do use them, you must use them correctly (39–46). An exclamation mark denotes the end of a sentence.

British English
  1. ‘The cat is on the mat again!’ said Sam.
  2. ‘The cat is on the mat’, said Sam, ‘again!’
  3. ‘The cat is on the mat again!’ said Sam. ‘I’ve chased him off a dozen times today!’
  4. ‘The cat is on the mat again!’ Sam glared at the cat. ‘I’ve chased him off a dozen times already!’
American English
  1. “The cat is on the mat again!” said Sam.
  2. “The cat is on the mat,” said Sam, “again!”
  3. “The cat is on the mat again!” said Sam. “I’ve chased him off a dozen times today!”
  4. “The cat is on the mat again!” Sam glared at the cat. “I’ve chased him off a dozen times already!”

Exclamation marks are typically not used for questions, but they can be used for rhetorical questions (47,48).

British English
  1. ‘Is that cat back on the mat!’ said Sam.
American English
  1. “Is that cat back on the mat!” said Sam.

Reference

Leonard, Elmore (2001), Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Harper Collins.