Punctuating dialogue properly

In a previous article, we examined the structure of using dialogue in writing. Today we will look at punctuating written dialogue properly. Almost all new writers make errors when initially learning to punctuate dialogue, but the rules are actually few and simple.

1. Generally speaking, each time a new character speaks, it is considered a new paragraph. This assists the reader in following a switch from one character to another in a conversation. For example,

"Which do you prefer, Coke or Pepsi?" Tong asked.

"Actually, I do not like either," responded Kaew.

2. A comma is needed to separate dialogue from its dialogue tag, and both periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks. For example, "You did very well on the test today," said the teacher. "I am pleased." After the word "today", a comma is used to let the reader know the teacher is speaking. A period is used after "pleased" to show the end of the dialogue.

3. When question marks and exclamation marks are used in dialogue, they take the place of commas and periods, remaining within the quotation marks. Also, be sure to notice that a lower-case letter follows the punctuated dialogue.

Example: "Watch out!" yelled Kai.

Example: "Did you miss the bus?" enquired Noi.

4. The first word of dialogue should be capitalised.

Correct: He said, "We can arrive by evening if we hurry."

Incorrect: He said, "we can arrive by evening if we hurry."

5. When dialogue is divided by a dialogue tag, begin the second half of the sentence with a lower-case letter, not an upper-case one. For example, "If you try," he said with a smile, "you may find it is easier than you think."

6. Never capitalise the dialogue tag.

Correct: "Yes, the hat belongs to me," said the woman.

Incorrect: "Yes, the hat belongs to me," Said the woman.

Practise and enjoy your written chatter!


Heather Vlach is an English-language specialist and Intensive Studies educator at International School Bangkok in Nonthaburi. Her email address is heatherv@isb.ac.th.

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Writer: Heather Vlach
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