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“Say What?”–Where Do I Put the Quotation Marks?

Monday, October 6, 2008

This will probably be review for all of my readers, but we can’t talk about dialogue without talking about the technicalities of it.

Where quotation marks come in relationship to other punctuation can be rather tricky, especially if you’re like me and you read not just American-published stuff, but British and Australian as well. If you’re outside of the U.S. reading this, please understand that the rules I will refer to apply to standards of American publishing. Also, this will focus on the use of quotation marks in fiction/prose writing.

As 99.99% of fiction writers already know, spoken dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph:

“I’m sure they treat you like a celebrity down in Atlanta.”

“Hmm.” The author grimaced. “Yeah—and that’s one of the reasons I’m here now.”

A thrill of excitement rushed up Kirsten’s spine. “Are you here to research a new book?”

“No, but I’m sure this place and its history will give me some ideas. I’m moving here—to teach English and journalism at Boone College.”

“Oh—those lucky students! I’m sure you’ll be their favorite professor.”

“Thanks.” Ms. Hebert sipped the latte. “This is really good. How much do I owe you?”

Kirsten held her hands up in protest. “A visitor’s—or newcomer’s—first cup is always on the house.”

Periods vs. commas. A period is used when what comes after the closing quotation mark is a new sentence (all of the examples above). A comma is used when what follows is part of the same sentence—most often seen with “said/asked” dialogue tags or when an action beat comes in the middle of a line of dialogue:

“If you’ll just look at this,” she held the report out toward him, “I think you’ll understand.”

“I don’t want to look at it,” he said, turning away from her. “Just tell me what it says.”

When the sentence is complete, but you’re using a said or asked-type tag, you would use a comma and keep the attribution lower cased (as in the above example). If you aren’t using speaker attribution but action or introspection as your tag, you would end the dialogue with a period and capitalize what follows:

“I tried to convince myself it looked good.” He shook his head. “But it looked like baby puke.”

Interrupted speech. An em dash is used to indicate an interruption:

“What in the—”

“Look out!” Jeremy tackled her just before the bus hit her.


“How could you possibly think”—she jumped to her feet—“this wouldn’t upset me?”

(Yes, the first em dash comes outside of the quotation mark.)

The em dash is also used for interjections/parenthetical elements in the middle of a sentence. These are often what they refer to in drama as “asides.” Like parentheses, you must remember to close your em dash:

“When we went to the Grand Canyon—remember, the family trip back in high school—we went through Santa Fe on the way back.”

The em dash, as you’ll notice, does not have spaces on either side of it. It is achieved in MS Word by typing two hyphens – – (with no space between them) after the word where you want it. The keyboard shortcut is [ctrl][alt][number-pad minus sign] in the PC version of Word and [option][apple][number-pad minus sign] in Word for Mac.

One formatting problem Word has when using an em dash is that at the end of a piece of dialogue, it turns the quotation mark around the wrong way. There are two ways to eliminate this problem. In the PC version of Word, after your em dash, hit [ctrl][‘](apostrophe) then [shift][“]. This should turn the quotation mark the right way (this works for getting the apostrophe to face the correct direction at the beginning of a word, too). Or you can do it the cheap way: type your two hyphens followed by any random letter, followed by the quotation mark, then delete the random letter.

Faltering/Fading speech. An ellipsis is used to indicate when someone’s thought trails off, or to indicate that they’ve gone on and on and on but you’ve saved the reader the tedium of reading something you’ve either already shown before, or that it’s not important (shown through the other character’s bored reaction):

She shrugged. “Well, you know what they say . . .” Her voice drifted off.

“No, what do they say?”

Ellipses can be used at the beginning of a line of dialogue when a character has walked into a conversation in progress.

Quotations within quotations. When you are including a quote within a quote (such as a Bible verse), it goes in single quotation marks:

“When he said, ‘by any means necessary,’ I don’t think he meant bribery.”

(Notice, the comma goes inside the single quotes.)

“I think I know what he meant when he said, ‘by any means necessary.'”

(Like the previous example, the period goes before the single quote mark—because a period won’t change the meaning of the quote.)

“What did he mean when he said, ‘by any means necessary’?”

(Now the punctuation comes after the single quote, because the quoted statement isn’t a question. If I’d put the question mark inside the single quote, it would have changed the meaning of the quote.)

All punctuation would come after an apostrophe at the end of a sentence:

“Good mornin’.”

“How’re you doin’?”

The general rule for closing quotation marks and other punctuation, according to CMS 6.8, is that periods and commas always come before the closing quote mark. In standard dialogue, a question mark, exclamation point or other punctuation all come before the closing quotation mark (not after the speaker attribution if you’re using a said/asked dialogue tag).

When you have dialogue that’s a question or exclamation followed by a said or asked tag (though we’ll talk about eliminating those in another post), the attribution is not capitalized:

“How much is that blanket?” she asked.

  1. Monday, October 6, 2008 8:28 am

    Wow, you’re very detailed. Thanks for the crash course. It never hurts to do some review of this. I think I’ve been getting it right so far, but it was good to ‘understand’ the reasoning for all those placements.

    Thanks, Kaye!


  2. Monday, October 6, 2008 9:47 am

    How thorough (but how could we expect anything less?

    The one thing that I’ve recently run into is being corrected when using “stacked” quotes more than two deep, like this:

    “He quoted Ben Franklin as saying ‘A penny saved is awesome.'”

    “No, he said, ‘I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “A penny? Awesome.”‘”

    I just love the “‘” at the end there. Anyway, someone wanted me to change the double quotes around “A penny? Awesome.” to single quotes. Not how it works.


  3. Emilie permalink
    Monday, October 6, 2008 9:56 am

    Nearly every residency workshop at SHU, I had to give at least one writer the same review in my critique of their piece. Thanks for not assuming that dedicated, talented writers know all their mechanics:)


  4. Monday, October 6, 2008 10:20 am

    You very rarely use quotations in screenplays unless a character is repeating something someone else said.

    What is the rule involving single words?

    For instance:
    Why would you use the word “redonkulous”?
    I don’t know why he used the word “redonkulous.” It’s not a word.

    Grammatically, I think the punctuation is still supposed to fall within the quotations, but I’ve always thought that looked weird since you’re not quoting a full sentence. Putting it within the quotations makes it read like it’s the only part of the sentence that’s a question to me.


  5. Monday, October 6, 2008 10:44 am

    You’ve punctuated them correctly.

    The rule on what you’re asking about, which the Chicago Manual of Style terms “words used as words” is this:

    When a word or term is not used functionally but is referred to as the word or term itself, it is either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks.

    So, again, you’ve punctuated correctly. However, whenever I’m editing or critiquing, if it’s something that falls near dialogue, I usually suggest italicizing it instead of putting it into quote marks simply to differentiate it from the dialogue.


  6. Jess permalink
    Monday, October 6, 2008 12:36 pm

    In the case above, I find myself italicizing. However, sometimes when the word is “yes” or “no,” I find myself simply capitalizing. (I asked, and she said Yes.) In fact, even a capital letter feels like too much. So do quotes. What do you do, Kaye?


  7. Monday, October 6, 2008 12:37 pm

    Well, with scripts, dialogue doesn’t go in quotations anyway, so I always use quotations for things like this. I would understand doing that for other literature though.

    Still, it’s good to know I am doing it right after all.


  8. Monday, October 6, 2008 1:24 pm

    With single-word quotations, CMS 11.44 says:

    Words such as yes, no, where, how, and why, when used singly, are not enclosed in quotation marks except in direct discourse:
    –Ezra always answered yes; he could never say no to a friend.
    –Please stop asking why.


    — “Yes,” he replied.
    –Again, she repeated, “Why?”


  9. Monday, October 6, 2008 1:30 pm

    Could we find a better review anywhere?

    Thanks so much. I can’t read the correct usage of the em dash vs. ellipsis enough.


  10. Monday, October 6, 2008 2:05 pm

    Thanks for this great review, Kaye. I’ve always confused em dashes and ellipses, too!


  11. Jess permalink
    Monday, October 6, 2008 2:27 pm

    Thank you!
    CMS 11.44 makes me think of Bible verses.


  12. Monday, October 6, 2008 7:31 pm

    This is one thing I’m actually pretty decent at 😀 Yay. Good review though. A refresher never hurts.


  13. kate permalink
    Monday, December 1, 2008 10:56 pm

    Ok Well what about this?

    Whenever Andy wanted to get his way and he would say, “Not Fair”, Dad would also want to get his way and he would say, “Straight to bed with you, young man”.

    Have I punctuated this correctly? Or should it be:
    Whenever Andy wanted to get his way and he would say, “Not Fair”…
    Dad would also want to get his way and he would say, “Straight to bed with you, young man”.


  14. Monday, December 1, 2008 11:31 pm

    To me, these are two separate sentences:

    Whenever Andy wanted to get his way, he would say, “Not fair.” Dad would also want to get his way, and he would say, “Straight to bed with you, young man.”


  15. Emma permalink
    Monday, March 16, 2009 1:03 am

    Quick question!
    I’m having a chat with my friend via internet and I put an extra “e” at the end of a word.
    I told him to “Ignore the ‘e.'”
    Is that correct punctuation?
    Or is it: Ignore the “e”.


  16. Monday, March 16, 2009 1:10 am

    Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style says:

    Letters as letters: Individual letters and combinations of letters of the Latin alphabet are usually italicized. Examples:

    the letter q
    a lowercase n
    The plural is usually formed in English by adding s or es.

    When I use letters when writing about endings, I usually include an en dash or hyphen in front of them just to set them apart from the text around them (for example: “Be careful about using too many adverbs ending with
    –ly” or “Try not to start successive paragraphs with –ing verbs.”

    In a texting/IM situation, since you may not have the luxury of using italics, and which is casual enough that you don’t have to worry about getting everything formatted perfectly, quotation marks work just fine.


  17. CHERIE House permalink
    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 11:59 am


    I am a court reporter, and there’s lots of controversy amongst us on how to use quotation marks and punctuation for the following:

    I need you to say yes or no when you answer the question, not uh-huh or huh-uh. You said yes many times so far, but you are still saying uh-huh at times. A yes or no just makes it simpler and more certain when we read it back.

    I intentionally left out quotes and punctuation to see what you would do.

    Thanks, Cherie


  18. Tuesday, March 31, 2009 3:41 pm

    I’m currently accessing this from out of town, so I don’t have access to my Chicago Manual of Style. If I were editing this as dialogue in fiction (as in, if I were writing a lawyer or judge saying this to someone) I wouldn’t use quotation marks around the words yes, no or uh-huh, huh-uh. It is more of a style decision than a hard-and-fast rule. They could be put in quotation marks to indicate speech, or they could be put in quotation marks to indicate words used as words.

    If I can remember when I get home next week, I’ll look it up in Chicago and come back and quote the rules that could apply in each instance.


  19. Cherie permalink
    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 1:26 am

    What a quick response! Thanks, Kaye. And I am looking forward to what you find in Chicago.

    Also, I was reading your reply to Emma. I may be wrong but I don’t think you answered her question. Excuse me if I missed it and/or didn’t understand your reply. She asked about the punctuation and she punctuated it two different ways.

    I told him to “Ignore the ‘e.’”
    Is that correct punctuation?
    Or is it: Ignore the “e”.

    The first one she put the period inside the quotation mark, and the second one she put the period outside of the quotation mark. I think that may be part of her question. I’m also curious to know the answer.

    Thanks again!


  20. Wednesday, April 1, 2009 7:39 am

    According to the Chicago rule I quoted toward the end of the entry:

    The general rule for closing quotation marks and other punctuation, according to CMS 6.8, is that periods and commas always come before the closing quote mark.


  21. Thursday, October 25, 2012 9:29 am

    Wow! I just found this and it helps so, SO much! I know it’s three years late, but THANK YOU for posting this!! I HATE that the quote marks turn the wrong way after em-dashes. I wish there was an easy way to fix them.. Apparently not- but at least I can work on it now.
    Have a great day!


  22. Friday, April 12, 2013 8:01 pm

    You just saved my life. Thank you. I have struggled with em-dashes forever. Innie or out tie… you answered my question.


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