Punctuation Rules for Conversation Quotation With Examples
Goal in Punctuating Conversation
When you write a conversation, your most important goal is making sure your reader understands who is talking. The following rules are easy to follow and will make sure that your reader doesn't have to backtrack in the story (isn't that annoying?) to find out who said what!
6 Punctuation Rules
1. Indent each time a new person speaks.
2. Make it clear who is speaking.
3. Quotation marks only around speech.
4. Same speaker? No new paragraph.
5. Use Variety
6. Long quotations are special.
Use Emotional Words for "Said"
1. Indent Each Time a New Person Speaks
This rule trips up many of my students. Every time a new person is speaking, you need to start a new paragraph and indent. Remember:
- If the person only speaks a word or short phrase, you still need to indent.
- Include any description which accompanies the action of that person in the paragraph with that quote.
Here is an example:
George said, "Jane, did you hear that noise last night?" George nudged her when she didn't respond.
"Hear what?" asked Jane, "You mean your snoring?"
George glared at her, "How could I have heard it if I was asleep snoring? You always think everything bad is my fault!"
Jane knew she was grumpy because she hadn't slept well and she wished George would agree to go to the sleep center to be tested for sleep apnea, but she didn't feel like getting into a fight right now. Softly, she touched his arm. "I'm sorry, George," she said. "What do you think you heard?"
Giving her a peck on the cheek, George ruefully grinned, "You're probably right. I must have woken myself up. Where's the number for that sleep doctor?"
Why indent? It helps the reader to follow the conversation and know when a new person is speaking. In a movie or real conversation, the visual and audio clues easily let us know when a new person is talking. In writing, you use punctuation and formatting instead.
In the above example, the name of the person was used in each paragraph; however, sometimes, when the dialogue is fast, you may omit the names of the speakers in short sentences. By indenting each line, the reader can still know who is speaking.
2. Be Clear About Who is Speaking
There isn't a firm rule about how many times you need to say the name of the speaker. Instead, the rule is that your reader shouldn't get confused and have to re-read. If you are doing a short dialogue with just two people, say their names every 5-6 sentences or so.
Here is an example:
"Are you awake, George?" asked Jane.
"I said, are you awake?
"I am now."
"What does that mean?"
"It means, you woke me up!" muttered George angrily, turning over in bed and uttering a very loud sigh.
"So, what do you want?" he sputtered.
"Nothing," said Jane, turning over and pulling the covers over her head. "Go back to sleep."
"You drive me crazy!"
Words Can Speak a Thousand Pictures
3. Quotation Marks Around Speech
Quotation marks show two things:
- Someone is starting to speak.
- Someone is stopping speaking.
Therefore, when you use quotation marks, be sure to put them right before the words someone says and right afterward. You never include the name of the person speaking inside the quotation marks (as I have 1-2 students do each year). Here is an example:
Incorrect: "George said I will pick up the laundry today on the way home from work."
"Great, then I will get us some Chinese take-out for dinner, Sally replied."
Correct: George said, " I will pick up the laundry today on the way home from work."
"Great, Then I will get us some Chinese take-out for dinner," Sally replied.
4. New Speaker Means New Paragraph
Sometimes, a lot of description or other information might come in between the words someone is speaking. In that case, you need to remember:
- Quotation marks go around speech starting and stopping.
- If the same person is speaking, you don't need to start a new paragraph.
Here is an example with the dialogue underlined:
Steve, my husband's French cousin, had an unusual haircut: rounded in front, sticking up on top, and short all over. "Obviously French," said my husband, "very sophisticated, very cool." I was somewhat less impressed, but I could tell my husband was thinking about asking me to cut his hair that way. Finally, he confessed, "I was going to ask you to cut my hair like Steve's, because I thought it might make me look at bit more debonair. I've changed my mind though, after his sister told me that their mother cuts his hair and everyone at school makes fun of him."
"Oh . . . uh, sorry," I said. I'd been trying to imagine what my husband would look like with a brown bowl on his head. "Guess even the French like to save money."
5. Use Variety in Words for "Said"
There is nothing more boring than dialogue that always uses "he said" and "she said" or conversations that always put the speaker first. That kind of sentence writing only works for beginning reader books. Here is how you make your dialogue sound sophisticated and professional:
1. Use Variety in Where You Put Speaker. Making your dialogue pop means using a variety. First of all, you can vary where you put the speaker. You can put this information at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence. Examples:
- The beginning of the sentence:
Finally, he confessed, "I was going to ask you to cut my hair like Steve's because I thought it might make me look at a bit more debonair. I've changed my mind, however, after his sister told me that their mother cuts his hair and everyone at school makes fun of him."
- The end of the sentence:
"Oh . . . uh, sorry," I said.
- In the middle:
"Obviously French," said my husband, "very sophisticated, very cool."
2. Use Variety in words used for "said." Another important way that you can make great dialogue is to use many different words for said that give the emotion of the person.
3. Use Intensifying Words: You can also add adverbs (ly words) like "surprisingly," "quickly" and "seriously" to intensify that emotion. See the charts below for examples of words for said and adverbs.
Words for Said
Adjectives to Use With Words for Said
how it is said
6. Rules for Long Quotes
Ok, I know everyone wants to be special but long quotations really are special and here are a few punctuation tips:
Use regular paragraph format for long quotes. Unlike quoting a literary or news source, when you are using conversation, you do not have to indent on the right-hand side for a long quote. You just use the regular paragraph format.
Use quotation marks only for the start and end of the quote. Normally, you will have many shorter quotations with a description in between. However, sometimes you may have a person speaking without interruption for a long time as they are telling a story. The way you punctuate this is different. If a person speaks for more than one paragraph you:
- Put quotation marks before their first word.
- Don't put a quotation mark at the end of that paragraph if they are still speaking without interruption in the next paragraph.
- Instead, put quotation marks at the start of the next paragraph to indicate they are still speaking.
- Put an ending quotation mark when they stop speaking.
My Grandfather pulled on a blade of grass and said, "Did I ever tell you about your Mom when she was little ? xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (continue on for whole paragraph, there is no quotation mark at end).
"She was so funny when she was in the third grade. After school one day, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (finish paragraph but still no ending quotation marks).
"At her wedding, I thought I was going to cry because I loved her so much. But your Grandma cried so much that I laughed instead." Big tears rolled down his face now as he remembered that day.
Notice the ending quotation marks after "instead." The "Big tears..." sentence is a description, so there aren't any quotation marks around it.
Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue
Improve your writing of dialogue by adding adjectives to explain how a person says something. Any of the words for said can be changed and made more interesting by adding one of the adjectives on the list. By changing the words around, you can make the same sentence have completely different meanings. Check out the amazing change adjectives and different words for said makes in these sentences:
Jason said, "Where are you going right now?"
"Where are you going right now?" demanded Jason.
Compassionately, Jason asked, "Where are you going right now?
Jason sobbingly cried, "Where are you going right now?"
Jason happily asked, "Where are you going right now?"
"Where," Jason abruptly interrupted, "Are you going right now?"
Use these word lists to give it a try in your conversations and dialogues!
Tips for Writing Conversation
1. Put quotation marks around what is actually said.
2. Punctuation of conversation needs to help the reader "see" the conversation and know who is speaking when.
3. You don't need to say the name of the person speaking every time but say it often enough that the reader is reminded who it is.
4. If more than two people are speaking, you may need to tell the reader who is talking more often.
5. Let someone else read the dialogue and mark who is speaking if you aren't sure it is clear.
Final Tip: Look At Professional Writing
My final tip? If you ever encounter a punctuation problem you don't know how to solve, your best resource is pulling out a novel and looking through it for conversation which is like the kind you are doing. Choose a recent novel with a lot of dialogue for the best help. Copy editors make sure that the standards of punctuation are done correctly in printed work, so following the rules you see in a novel should make sure you are doing things correctly.
Questions & Answers
Is it correct to write "He said," or, "He said:" and then start a new paragraph with the direct speech? I have seen this in a George Eliot novel.
In general, it is probably better to keep the direct speech in the same paragraph as the "He said." However, in a novel or any fictional writing, there is a lot of leeway for effect. I don't recall the particular quote you are mentioning, but I can see that using the "he said:" could be a way of making what the person said to be more like a speech than a dialogue. It does remind me of Middlemarch and how Dorothea might have felt about hearing Casaubon drone on and on.
I think it is important also to remember that some of the grammar standards we now follow were not as standardized back in the mid-nineteenth century when George Eliot wrote her novels. I would probably not want my students to use that particular construction in their writing unless they could explain clearly why they needed to do so because they could not make their point in a different way.Helpful 23
How do you use a quote when the speaker doesn't say it out loud?
You can quote thoughts in the same way that you quote speech. The difference is with the word you use before the quote. Instead of "said" you would say "thought" or something along that line. Here is an example using both speech and thought to show it clearly:
James cheerfully said to his mother, "I'm happy to clean the garage with you this weekend!" while inwardly groaning, "I can't believe she's making me miss another Saturday baseball practice."Helpful 3
What symbol do you use to indicate that a character is thinking?
There is no particular symbol or punctuation in English to show that someone is thinking, so you need to make that part of the sentence by using "think," "muse," "considered" or some other word which conveys the idea that the words were thought but not said out loud. Here are some examples:
John walked down the street and thought, "Does she really love me?"
Walking down the lonely street, John mused, "I don't think she really loves me."Helpful 16
Could I add another set of quotation marks after a sentence ends?
Quotation marks are put after a person has finished speaking, or you have completed the quotation. You only need one set of marks.Helpful 8
Do you use speech marks if a character is talking out loud to themselves only?
If the person is talking out loud, I would use quotation marks around what they actually said. If they are thinking something, you also can use quotation marks to say what they are thinking. Examples:
John walked down the street quickly shouting "Move faster! Move harder!" to himself under his breath.
John walked down the street quickly thinking "Move faster! Move harder."Helpful 7