I've often heard writers say they don't like using colons and semi-colons in dialogue specifically and I don't often see colons and semi-colons in dialogue, but sometimes it just seems like it's by far the best option.

For example:

"I told you: John doesn't work on Mondays."

Is there any real alternative to this?

"Don't worry; I only get drunk on Sundays."

Is the semi-colon ok, or is it awkward in dialogue? Putting a full stop after Don't worry seems strange to me.

"I’ll do anything it takes: rehab, counseling, therapy, whatever I need to do.”

Is the colon ok here or is an em-dash better?

"It's an article about all the types of things you hate: the environment, animal rights, veganism, that kind of thing."

Is the colon above ok in dialogue?

"Trust me; the WASPy stuff is nothing in comparison."

Is a semi-colon appropriate above? Once again, it seems strange to me to put a full-stop.

"Those things I said—I didn't mean a word of them."

Is an em-dash appropriate here? I thought you weren't supposed to put a full clause after an em-dash if it finishes the sentence? If so, should I use something else like a colon?

"I know you; that place would haunt you."

Is there another way of doing this?

Thanks so much for any advice! Please note the question is specifically about dialogue.


2 Answers 2


Speech is definitely different from formal writing, and trying to formalize the punctuation in dialogue seems (to me, personally) to take away the human element there.

As a grammar enthusiast, I can appreciate your effort to try to choose the best punctuation for the sentence itself, but within dialogue, I think you have to be a little more forgiving in order to communicate the flow of speech rather than the structure of the sentence.

Here is how I'd write each of those sentences:

"I told you, John doesn't work on Mondays."

"Don't worry, I only get drunk on Sundays."

I think a semicolon would be pretty awkward there. Period vs. comma would be up to the writer and what the intended flow of the sentence is.

"I’ll do anything it takes – rehab, counseling, therapy – whatever I need to do."

I think the dash works better here and is in general better than a colon in dialogue. I've taken to using space en-dash space rather than an em-dash with no spaces as a matter of personal style; it just plain looks better.

"It's an article about all the types of things you hate – the environment, animal rights, veganism – that kind of thing."

"Trust me, the WASPy stuff is nothing in comparison."

Again, I'd use comma instead of semicolon since it's dialogue.

"Those things I said – I didn't mean a word of them."

I'm confused by your question. A dash is supposed to be used when there is a fragment followed by a clause like that.

"I know you – that place would haunt you."

I prefer a dash here.

Again, my comments and opinions are definitely aimed at dialogue, not formal punctuation rules.

  • Thanks so much Robyoder! I think that what you are saying is what I see in most books. It just got so ingrained into me to avoid comma splices, and the reality is that they are used all the time in dialogue. I was trying to avoid them, but maybe they would distract the reader a lot less than colons and semi-colons in the middle of dialogue. Thanks for the advice!
    – MoniqueH
    Oct 13, 2015 at 4:22
  • I agree with everything you say here. But to make this a really good answer, it would be necessary to find references licensing the punctuation choices (especially the contentious choice of comma splices). One woman's formal punctuation rules are another woman's style guidelines. Aug 4, 2016 at 11:06

People don't speak with specific punctuation marks.

If the person says some words and the intonation and context makes it clear how they are to be parsed, then I'll insert the needed marks to write that. In particular, you may have a choice of writing (e.g.)

"I came, I ate."  **wrong**: comma splice.
"I came. I ate."
"I came; I ate."
"I came: I ate."

If the sound was not conveying a full stop, then the semicolon would be the correct way to write it, as opposed to the comma.

People don't use comma splices in speaking. They speak the words and you need to note the marks to translate that into the written medium.
I agree with the previous answer that I recall seeing em-dash used more in dialog. I suppose it would be natural to use it as a synonym for the semi in cases where the spoken language is gramatically correct as written language, too.

But, the difference between ; and : can be used to be more nuanced, too. It might be the way he looked at you when he said it or the pacing, that makes a rare : distinct from a common ; .

My desktop computer has a keyboard with 4 different dashes, too.

  • Comma splices are not considered wrong per se by many linguists. I came. I saw, I conquered is rarely punctuated differently. Overuse is a different matter, but this is a matter of style. This is discussed elsewhere on ELU. Aug 4, 2016 at 11:07

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