Dialogue is tricky. It is easy to mess it up. I don’t think anyone ever sat me down and taught me how to structure and punctuate quotations, so you shouldn’t be ashamed if you still struggle with it. It took me a long time to be confident. Presented to you here, to the best of my ability, are the rules of dialogue and quotation. Scroll to the bottom of this article for information on non-fiction citation, as it is different from fiction dialogue.
Rule 1: If it is what someone said, put it in quotation marks.
This is a rule that hopefully everyone knows by now. If a character is speaking out loud, it needs to be in quotation marks.
Ex. “I am going to the store,” said Mark.
Rule 2: All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
No matter the punctuation used, if it is tied to the dialogue itself then it belongs inside the quotation marks.
Ex. “You tripped?” Susie asked Steve.
Rule 3: Punctuation changes based on what is around the quotation marks.
If your dialogue is followed by a phrase that notes by whom and how the quotation is spoke, such as he said, whispered Mark, or Julie choked out, you should use a comma. This is called a speaker tag.
Ex. “Let’s go,” he ordered.
If the speaker tag is before the dialogue or in the middle of it, put a comma after it which is outside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I don’t know,” Lily said, “what to do.”
Unless, the two parts are complete sentences (I forget this rule all the time!).
Ex. “I can’t go,” Marron answered. “I have to go to the store.”
The comma inside the quotation mark, can be replaced by a question or exclamation mark without affecting the phrase, even if the next part is uncapitalized.
Ex. “Will you help me?” she asked.
If the bit in between is an action, use periods.
Ex. “I don’t know.” Sam shrugged, looking at the ground. “But let’s go anyway.”
If the bit in between is both a speaker tag and an action, default to the rules for speaker tags.
Ex. “He kissed me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, “but then I shoved him away.”
If the action breaks up the dialogue abruptly, use em-dashes outside of the quotation marks and no punctuation besides this.
Ex. “Why couldn’t he” — Andrew kicked a nearby chair— “just tell me?”
If a speaker is interrupted by someone else, put one em-dash inside the quotation mark. This rule also works for a speaker stuttering and stopping one thought for another.
Ex. “I was going to —”
Ex. “I wasn’t going— I wouldn’t— I won’t hurt you.”
If the speaker trails off, failing to finish a thought, use an ellipsis inside the quotation marks.
Ex. “I said I was going to …”
Rule 4: When splitting dialogue around a speaker tag, only capitalize new sentences.
Ex. “Tell me,” he said, “that you know the answer.”
Ex. “You want some?” Kai asked, holding out a small tin. “It’s candy.”
Rule 5: New speaker, new paragraph.
Every time that a different individual begins speaking, you must make a new paragraph.
Ex. “I don’t want to go,” she said, complaining.
“Why?” Mark asked.
“Because, it is boring,” she explained.
Rule 5: You don’t always need a speaker tag.
You don’t always need a speaker tag, especially in a back and forth conversation. But if there is a new speaker interrupting them, they need to be identified.
Ex. “Did you go to the store?” Jae asked.
“I went yesterday,” Mai answered.
“What did you get?”
“Wait! You only got orange juice?” Matt asked, confused.
Rule 6: If it is unclear who is talking, use their name.
It is all well and good to use “he said” and “she said” but it can get confusing, especially if two individuals of the same gender are speaking. The reader needs to know who is saying what. When in doubt, use their names (I find this rule applies to pronoun use in general).
Rule 7: You can break it up.
If your dialogue gets too long it is okay to make a new paragraph without ending the quote. To do so, don’t put a closing quotation mark, but do put an opening one.
Ex. “I went to the store the other day and bought cheese.
“It wasn’t the first time that I have been to the store.”
Rule 7: You can front the speaker tag.
The speaker tag can come before the dialogue, just make sure to use a comma.
Ex. She said, “I want to go along.”
Rule 8: You can use a colon.
If the introduction or the quotation is an independent clause, you can use a colon instead of a comma.
Ex. She gave him some good advice: “Read the instructions first.”
Rule 9: You can quote someone else inside of quotation marks.
If you are having one character convey what another character has said, there are a few ways to do this. First, you can have the speaker paraphrase the statement. This method often uses the word “that” as a marker.
Ex. “She said that we should just go.”
Another place this exists frequently is when someone is questioning what someone has said, since they aren’t sure what has been said exactly.
Ex. “She told us to go, right?”
The other way is to have a quote within a quote. In this method, the inner quote should use single quotation marks. The punctuation goes inside both sets.
Ex. “She said, ‘Just go.’”
Rules for Non-Fiction Citation:
Rule 1: No speaker tag, no comma.
You don’t always need a speaker tag for quotations. Sometimes you can just insert the quotation into the paragraph. In these situation, you don’t need a comma.
Ex. Kondō married a woman named Otsuné, who was “endowed with measures of propriety and pluck more prevalent in the daughter of a samurai than in a woman of the common classes” (Hillsborough 46).
Rule 2: Punctuation goes outside the quotation mark.
As shown in the example from the previous rule, the period (or comma) is placed outside the quotation marks and after the in-text citation.
The exception to this rule is for question and exclamation marks that are present within the cited quotation, and block quotes. For the first exception, put the punctuation used inside the quote and then proceed with everything else.
Ex. “Wouldn’t you agree?” (56), the author asks us.
For block quotes, you don’t need quotation marks at all and the punctuation goes before the in-text citation. A block quote should follow a colon.
Ex. In Sonnet 19, Milton writes:
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present … (1-5)
Rule 3: More than four lines of text should be in a block quote.
This includes poetry or such similarly formatted pieces, like song lyrics. See above rule for an example of a block quote.
Rule 4: Use slashes for verse divisions.
In works like poetry, lyrics, and plays which contain line divisions, use forward slashes to indicate a break if not using a block quote.
Ex. What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed” (4.4.33-5), asks Hamlet.
Rule 5: How to edit the text.
If you need to alter the text you are citing or clarify something, there are ways to do this.
If there is a spelling or grammar error in the text you are citing, add the word “sic” in parenthesis next to the word in question.
Ex. “I wert (sic) there” (57), he wrote in his journal.
If you are omitting a word or phrase, use a spaced-out ellipsis of 3 dots. This should come after the period, if the break is after a full and completed sentence, resulting in there being 4 dots.
Ex. “He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept. . . telling him he must transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny. . . . Harry woke, sweating” (97).
For omitting one or more full lines of poetry from a block quote, space out several periods to fill the length of a line.
Ex. These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration . . . (22-24, 28-30)
If you are changing a word or phrase, be it to match tense or for clarity, demarcate the changed section in brackets.
Ex. “Mark wrote frequently about [his follow classmates] in his autobiography” (67), explains the author.
For those looking for more information on in-text citation, I find the Owl at Perdue to be an extremely helpful source. Especially since I have only given examples here for MLA format.
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Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.