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What are some common rules for punctuating dialogue in American English?

closed as too broad by choster, Sven Yargs, tchrist, Mitch, Brian Hooper Dec 20 '15 at 17:34

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How to Punctuate American English Dialogue

Common rules for punctuating dialogue in American English include:

  1. Prefer double quotes to single quotes.
  2. A dialogue tag that precedes a quotation is followed by a comma.
  3. The first word after an opening quotation mark is capitalized.
  4. Except if the word continues a sentence and is not a proper noun.
  5. Closing quotation marks must be preceded by a punctuation mark.
  6. Except if in the start or middle of a sentence and is not a quotation.
  7. Except if the question mark or exclamation point is not part of the quotation.
  8. Except if actions or thoughts are offset by dashes.
  9. Opening and closing quotes must be balanced within a paragraph.
  10. Except if the quotation continues to the next paragraph.
  11. Start a new paragraph when you move from one speaker to another.
  12. Use single quotes for embedded dialogue.
  13. Embedded dialogue punctuation follows these rules.
  14. Switch between double quotes and single quotes for each nested level of embedded dialogue.

Punctuation Marks

Punctuation marks permissible before a closing quotation mark include:

  • question mark (?)
  • exclamation point (!)
  • comma (,)
  • period (.)
  • dashes (--)
  • ellipses (...)

Examples

  1. Prefer double quotes (") to single quotes (').

    "The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language."

  2. A dialogue tag that precedes a quotation is followed by a comma.

    Feynman said, "I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence."

  3. The first word after an opening quotation mark is capitalized.

    Richard Feynman once quipped, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool."

  4. Except if the word continues a sentence and is not a proper noun.

    "We always have had," began Feynman, "a great deal of difficulty in understanding the world view that quantum mechanics represents."

  5. Closing quotation marks must be preceded by a punctuation mark.

    Said Feynman, "Does this then mean that my observations become real only when I observe an observer observing something as it happens?"

  6. Except if in the start or middle of a sentence and is not a quotation.

    We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes "the world" is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game.

  7. Except if the question mark or exclamation point is not part of the quotation.

    Did Feynman really say, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled"?

  8. Except if actions or thoughts are offset by dashes.

    I said to him, "You're crazy"--but he wasn't.

  9. Opening and closing quotes must be balanced within a paragraph.
  10. Except if the quotation continues to the next paragraph.

    In his "Uncertainty of Values," Feynman lectured, "I believe that government should be limited in many ways, and what I am going to emphasize is only an intellectual thing. I don't want to talk about everything at the same time. Let's take a small piece, an intellectual thing.

    "No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression."

  11. Start a new paragraph when you move from one speaker to another.

    Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers--because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said, "I don't think there are flying saucers."

    So my antagonist said, "Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it's impossible?"

    "No," I said, "I can't prove it's impossible. It's just very unlikely."

  12. Use single quotes for embedded dialogue.

    "OK. Now I want to say, 'Would you solve the Dirac Equation?'--how do I say that?"

    "Well, you have to use a different word for 'solve,'" they say.

  13. Embedded dialogue punctuation follows these rules.
  14. Switch between double quotes and single quotes for each nested level of embedded dialogue.

    From Wikiquote's Richard Feynman page, "'OK. Now I want to say, "Would you solve the Dirac Equation?"--how do I say that?'"

Addendum

Publishers will set forth their own guidelines and variations, but this list should cover most of the common rules you'll encounter for writing dialogue using American English.

Related Links

  • It makes sense that this is self answered. I don't know anyone who would put in this kind of effort for a question by some person they've never met. – Matt Samuel Dec 20 '15 at 2:58

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