Quotation Marks And Dialogue Mechanics

Let’s begin by looking at some of the less complicated rules involving quotation marks. First, they are used to enclose words and phrases to which special attention needs to be drawn. If a word is used out of context or in some other unusual way, such as to include a slang word in formal writing, or when it is being used sarcastically, it should appear in quotes:

“Of” is an ambiguous preposition, for it can mean “from” or “by.”
Yeah, it was a “happy” occasion, all right, if you like being humiliated in public!
He really is quite a “square” fellow.

In the first sentence we’ve used prepositions as nouns, which is allowable only if we put them in quotation marks. Sentence two involves sarcasm; that is, a meaning that is exactly opposite of what is said. You put “happy” in quotation marks because you want to be sure the reader catches the irony (in much the same way a speaker will make “air quotes” with his hands to make sure the audience understands the intended sarcasm). The final sentence uses quotes to insert a slang expression into a more formal context; omitting the quotes would make it seem that the writer was using informal language inappropriately.

A second use of quotation marks involves titles. Use them in the following instances:

  • short artistic works (poems, songs, television and radio programs)
  • titles of individual courses of study (but not areas)
  • short stories
  • articles in magazines
  • any literary piece that is not bound as a book

Here are some typical examples:

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is his best.
I enrolled in P.E. 17, “Social Dancing.”
Robinson’s sonnet “Richard Cory” is one of the best ever to come out of America.
His third chapter is strangely titled “The Sink in the Sky.”
Poe’s best story, I think, is “The Man of the Crowd.”

Quotes and Dialogue Now we come to a biggy, the handling of quotation and dialogue. Quotation marks are used to indicate direct quotations and dialogue. It would follow, then, that they are not used to punctuate indirect quotations (including the recounting of dialogue). If a direct quote or dialogue is introduced by a descriptive phrase (called an “attribution”), the attribution is separated from the quote or dialogue with a comma:

Lord Acton said, “. . . absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (direct quotation)
Lord Acton said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. (indirect quotation)

Elizabeth said, “I refuse to take another step.” (dialogue)
Elizabeth said she refused to take another step. (recounting of dialogue)

You can see that, whether you are dealing with factual quotes or fictional dialogue, the usage is quite similar. Whenever you are putting the speaker’s actual words on the page (whether real or made up), use quotation marks; when you are merely telling your reader what someone said (whether that someone is a real person or a fictional character), don’t use quotation marks.

Now here are three very important rules about punctuation with quotation marks that you should memorize (or at least write down and keep handy):

1. Periods and commas always occur inside quotation marks:

This set of intersecting lines is what we call a “grid.”
When you say someone is “square,” do you mean he is antisocial or merely old-fashioned?

2. Semicolons and colons always occur outside quotation marks:

Toynbee began his Study of History with “the annihilation of distance”; he ended it with “the annihilation of man.”
The teacher predicted that three things will shatter what he calls “the American dream”: the bigness, the buck and the bomb.

3. Question and exclamation marks may occur inside or outside quotation marks, depending on the meaning of the sentence:

He said, “Am I the guilty one?”
Did he say, “I am the guilty one”?
Did he say, “Am I the guilty one?”

In the first sentence, the quotation itself asks the question, so the question mark belongs inside the quotation marks. But in the next sentence, the question is being asked by the whole sentence and not the quotation, so the question mark belongs outside the quotation marks. Finally, sentence three has both the sentence and the quotation asking questions. In this case, the mark belongs inside, where everybody understands that it stands for both questions. You should never write:

Did he say, “Am I the guilty one?”?

Logical though it may be, the double question mark is unnecessary. Now look at a couple of examples using the exclamation mark, where the same logic applies:

He actually dared to say, “The world is flat”!
He said, “I’m the king of the world!”

In the first of these, the writer is astounded, not the one being quoted, so the exclamation mark belongs outside the quotation marks. In the second, of course, the exclamation is made by the one being quoted, so the exclamation point belongs inside the quotation marks. Still on the subject of punctuation with quotation marks, don’t use commas when other punctuation is called for:

Wrong: “Am I the guilty one?,” the weeping woman said.
Right: “Am I the guilty one?” the weeping woman said.

So far we’ve dealt with attribution that precedes the quote or dialogue. But it may also come at the end (as we’ve just seen) or in the middle, interrupting the quotation. Why? Well, from a stylistic viewpoint, it saves dialogue passages from becoming boring and stiff-sounding. If you put the attribution in the same location every time, your dialogue will acquire an unnatural “sameness.”

Varying the location of the attribution can also change the stress of the sentence. In a long quote or line of dialogue, using an interrupting attribution can remind the reader who is speaking, or serve to reinforce the main ideas of a quote by separating them and making each more distinct.

But what concerns us, of course, is the punctuation involved with attributions, wherever they may appear in the sentence. Examine the following in its three versions:

His manager said, “The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field.”
“The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field,” his manager said.
“The trouble with John,” his manager said, “is his lack of education in the field.”

Certainly, the two main ideas in this sentence are “the trouble with John” and “his lack of education in the field.” The third sentence is perhaps the most forceful because by breaking up the manager’s statement, equal weight is given to both parts. Notice the following things about these three sentences:

  • When the attribution comes first, it is followed by a comma. (“His manager said, “The…”)
  • When the attribution follows the quotation it begins without capitalization. (“. . . field,” his manager said.)
  • When the attribution follows the quotation, it is preceded by a comma. This comma replaces the period at the end of the quote or dialogue and–as we’ve already learned–always goes inside the ending quotation marks. (“. . . field,” his manager said.)
  • Quotations always begin with capital letters, no matter where they come in the sentence. (all three sentences)
  • When the attribution interrupts the quotation, the quotation continues without capitalization. (“. . . with John,” his manager said, “is his. . .”)

Now, let’s look at an example that appears to feature an interrupting explanatory statement between two consecutive sentences spoken by the same person:

“Turn on the ignition key,” the instructor said. “Now start the engine.”

But in this case the attribution doesn’t really interrupt the dialogue. Rather, it comes at the end of the first sentence of dialogue, and is punctuated accordingly. The second line of dialogue actually has no attribution at all. This presentation is quite common in long dialogue passages where it would be annoying to continually repeat the speaker’s name with each sentence of dialogue.

To prevent the reader from being confused about who is speaking, each change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph. For example:

Finally, her mother went upstairs, and I leaned over and kissed Janet. “Have you ever been kissed before?” I said suspiciously.

“Never,” she quickly replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, then, tell me this. How come you kiss so well?”

“I watched them do it in the movies.”

Here we have a conversation between two speakers with very little attribution. Yet it is quite easy for the reader to keep track of who is speaking because of the way the dialogue is separated into paragraphs for each speaker.

There is another option for direct citations of someone else’s writing or speech, generally used when the quoted material is four lines long or longer. This is the block quotation, which you’ve probably seen in text books. The exact form of a block quotation will be determined by the style of the printed piece–it may be single-spaced when the surrounding material is double-spaced; it may use a different, generally smaller, typeface than the surrounding material; it will most likely be inset from both the left and right margins–but generally it will look something like this:

What you should remember about block quotations is that they do not take quotation marks. Their shape is all the punctuation they need. And when you are finished with your long quotation, return to the spacing, margins and/or typeface of the main body of the piece.

If you need to quote several paragraphs, and do not want to use the block quote, you would put an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph but not at the end of any of the paragraphs except the one that concludes the quotation:

“But I did well in school and seemed to be peculiarly able to learn what the teacher said–I never mastered a subject, though–and there was the idiotic testimony of those peculiar witnesses, I.Q. tests: those scores invented me.

“Those scores were a decisive piece of destiny in that they affected the way people treated you and regarded you; they determined your authority; and if you spoke oddly, they argued in favor of your sanity. But it was as easy to say and there was much evidence that I was stupid, in every way or in some ways, or as my mother said in exasperation–in all the ways that count.”

The final rule involves quotations within quotations. For such internal quotations, use the apostrophe, sometimes called a single quote when used in this way:

“That’s fine by me,” Father cautioned, “but remember what Grandma used to say: ‘Early to bed, early to rise. . . .'”


These tips came from the course Turning Personal Stories into Memoir

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  • To identify the types of personal and family memoirs
  • To define the scope and theme of your book
  • How to decide what to put in – and what to leave out of your book
  • To develop a dateline and working outline for your book
  • How to stay on track and keep your book from “sagging” in the middle

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