Just two more days until National Punctuation Day! Yesterday, I started a countdown by posting rules for when you should and shouldn’t use semicolons. Today, I want to look at how you should punctuate dialogue. Do you put those punctuation marks inside or outside the quotation marks? We’ll look at the simple rules for inside, outside, and “it depends.” We’ll also talk about ellipses versus dashes for incomplete sentences.
Let’s jump right in!
Commas and periods: Inside
Commas and periods always go inside closing quotation marks.
“I want a puppy, Daddy,” she said.
He told her, “You can have a puppy when your room is clean.”
Note that it doesn’t matter whether the comma and period come at the end of the sentence or are distinctly not part of what is being quoted; this is always where they go. I could tell you to go read Poe’s “The Raven,” and I would be correct in having placed a comma inside the quotation marks in this sentence even though there’s no comma in the poem’s title. When a closing quotation mark meets a comma or period, the comma or period goes inside. It’s that simple.
Colons and semicolons: Outside
Colons and semicolons, a little less common in dialogue, always go outside the closing quotation marks.
She said, “I don’t know”; he knew she was telling the truth.
“I don’t believe you”: this was the cruelest thing he could say.
I don’t often see either of these punctuation marks in modern fiction, so they might not come up in your writing, either. Just remember that if they do, you should always put them after the quotation marks.
Exclamation and question marks: It depends
Exclamation marks and question marks can go either inside or outside the quotation marks, and there’s one simple question to help you decide which is correct in your sentence: Is the mark part of the quote?
If it is, it goes inside.
“I’m so excited!” she said.
“What kind of puppy should we get?” he asked.
If it is not, it goes outside.
The doctor told me, “You are cancer free”!
Why did you say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about”?
With either mark, you’ll always check the same thing. Are you quoting a question or exclamation? Put the mark inside. Are you questioning or exclaiming about a statement? Put the mark outside.
Ellipses or dashes: Trailing off or interrupted?
This tip is less about placement and more about usage.
I’ve seen people use ellipses (…) and em dashes* (—) interchangeably when showing that their speakers don’t finish what they’re saying. Trailing off without finishing a sentence and letting something or someone else interrupt whoever is speaking are two very different things, though, so they should be marked accordingly.
If your speaker trails off, use an ellipsis. This goes inside the quotation marks.
“But if he wasn’t at dinner, that means…” Her voice trailed off as she considered this.
If your speaker is interrupted, use an em dash. This goes inside the quotation marks if it ends the sentence and outside if the sentence continues.
She protested, “But that’s what I was trying to—” She stopped abruptly.
“But that’s what I was trying to say”—she stopped as the door opened and waited until the children had passed—“before you-know-who took over the conversation.”
Here’s a quick unsolicited style suggestion: consider limiting the number of times you have speakers trail off when they’re speaking. It doesn’t happen that often in real life, and it will stick out like a sore thumb if repeated too much in your writing. On the flip side, people are interrupted quite a lot in real life, but it still can look odd in writing if you show too much of that in your fiction. Use both dialogue tools intentionally and sparingly, and remember that the ellipsis and dash can’t be interchanged—the uses I show here are the uses you should stick with.
There you have it! Dialogue sometimes includes a lot of punctuation, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it all get scrambled together. As long as you follow these rules, your quotes will come out neat and tidy.
As before, leave a comment if you have any questions or want more examples! Otherwise, we’ll have another day of punctuation tips tomorrow.
*An em dash is the longest of the dashes. In Microsoft Word, you can type it by putting two hyphens together. Note that it is different from a hyphen, an en dash (used in situations like date ranges), or a minus sign. It is the correct one to use to show an interrupted sentence.