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Using Quotation Marks in Dialogue

Dawn Dignam Writer's Resources

How do I punctuate dialogue? When do I use quotation marks? What are quotation marks? Well, hopefully, you don’t have that last question running around in your mind. For your other questions, read on.

First off, whatever you do, do not punctuate a sentence like this:

“Of course!” said Sally.”

Do you see that third quotation mark? Do you? Do you? It shouldn’t exist! It shouldn’t ever exist! Quotation marks work in pairs! One should never add a third quotation mark after the tag that identifies who was speaking. The quotation marks set apart what Sally was saying. The tag is not part of Sally’s own words. I’ve seen this mistake in multiple poorly edited books lately. It drives me crazy! Actually, the books may not have been poorly edited overall, but they had that glaring mistake, at least once, which would give me the impression that it’s poorly edited.

Now that I’ve gotten that pet peeve off my chest, back to the basics. Quotation marks set quotes off from the rest of the text. They are always used in pairs: an opening quotation mark and a closing quotation mark. They are not used when paraphrasing. For example:

Quote: Billy yelled, “There’s a frog in the pool!”

Paraphrase: Billy yelled that there was a frog in the pool.

Dialogue has a few simple grammar rules. First off, a new speaker always starts a new paragraph. The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When the quote would end with a period but the tag follows the quote, the period is changed to a comma instead. Question marks and exclamation points stay as they are. When a tag interrupts a single sentence, both the first part of the quote and the tag end with a comma. See if you can catch the mistakes in the following dialogue:

“Hi, Sally,” greets Billy. Sally replies, “Hi, Billy,” “Did you see the frog in the pool”? asks Billy. “Of course”! says Sally. “I love frogs.” Billy adds, “My favorite.” Sally states. “are tree frogs.”

Did you catch the mistakes? I’ll work through them with you. First off, go back through and start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. Now, we will work on the individual sentences. Billy’s greeting is correct. However, since the tag comes before Sally’s quote, that comma after Billy needs to be a period. The question mark for Billy’s question needs to be moved to inside the quotation marks. The same goes for Sally’s exclamation. Switch the punctuation for Billy’s statement about frogs. The comma should be after the quote about frogs instead of that period. Since the tag follows his quote, it should end in a period, not the comma. In the last quote, Sally’s tag interrupts her sentence, so there should be a comma after both favorite and states. Here’s the correct version:

“Hi, Sally,” greets Billy.

Sally replies, “Hi, Billy.”

“Did you see the frog in the pool?” asks Billy.

“Of course!” says Sally.

“I love frogs,” Billy adds.

“My favorite,” Sally states, “are tree frogs.”

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About the Author

Dawn Dignam

With a degree in education, Dawn Dignam likes to claim that she's an over-educated stay-at-home mom. She also happens to be a freelance writer and curriculum designer. In her spare time, Dawn can be found hanging out at libraries, Second Life Steampunk concerts, and anywhere the Society of Anachronism gathers.