This is my last question for this week.

Are both sentences punctuated correctly below?

'It cannot be done,' he said; 'we must give up the task.' (Can we use a semicolon after 'he said' above, and then resume the quotation with a lowercase 'we'?)

'It cannot be done,' he said. 'We must give up the task.' (I'm assuming this is correct as written.)

  • 1
    I can't say I've ever seen a semicolon there. Comma, yes. Semicolon, no. – Oldcat Feb 27 '14 at 18:54
  • If you left out the 'he said', so that it read 'It cannot be done; we must give up the task', would that make sense with a semi-colon? I tend to think a comma would be sufficient. – WS2 Feb 27 '14 at 18:59
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    If we had a comma there, it would be a comma splice (methinks). – whippoorwill Feb 27 '14 at 18:59
  • No. I'm pretty sure that it'd be a splice. – whippoorwill Feb 27 '14 at 19:08
  • It's two independent clauses, so using a comma would be a comma splice. And I'm with Oldcat; I've never seen a semicolon used to break up dialogue like that before. The second version with the period would be more correct, and certainly more recognizable. – Roger Feb 27 '14 at 19:12

The punctuation surrounding quotes, including direct speech, tends to be a compromise. For instance, a comma is used where a full stop might reasonably be expected:

"I need the car today," said Jill.

Here is the 'rule' for the situation with OP's first version (I think it makes sense):

When you plop a speaker tag right in the middle of someone’s conversation, make sure that you don’t create a run-on sentence:

Wrong: “When you move a piano, you must be careful,” squeaked Al, “I could have been killed.”

Right: “When you move a piano, you must be careful,” squeaked Al. “I could have been killed.”

So two sentences (the second not needing another speaker tag) rather than a semicolon or comma. The perhaps reasonable-looking use of the semicolon is non-standard.

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