Tag Archives: Punctuation

Punctuating Dialogue

Punctuation is kind of A Thing with me. So let’s talk dialogue!

Hard and fast rule: if you use a dialogue tag (such as “he said”), you never end the dialogue with a period/full stop. Additionally, he/she is always lowercase.

Right: “Punctuation is awesome,” he said.
Wrong: “Punctuation is awesome.” He said.

If the dialogue tag is at the beginning, follow it with a comma and capitalize the start of the quoted text.

Right: He said, “Punctuation is awesome.”
Wrong: He said, “punctuation is awesome.”
Also wrong: He said “Punctuation is awesome.”

Other sentence-ending punctuation marks (?, !) go inside the quotes with the same capitalization rules.

Right: “Does this make sense?” she asked.
Wrong: “Does this make sense”? she asked.
Also Wrong: “Does this make sense?” She asked.

If you’re doing a divided quotation, you should use commas for the dialogue tag and not capitalize the second half. This looks wrong to some people, however, and you do see the latter.

Right: “I told you,” she said, “this isn’t that hard.”
Wrong: “I told you,” she said. “This isn’t that hard.”
(Undivided: “I told you this isn’t that hard.”)

Yes, an editor will fix these things for you, but I advocate learning. It just makes everything so much easier later on.

The Oxford Comma

Ah, the Oxford Comma. I am a devotee of this particular quirk of punctuation and, despite what followers of AP style guidelines might say about it, I am steadfast in its defense.

If you’re not a linguistics person, the Oxford (or serial) Comma is the comma at the end of a list. Take this common, and kind of jokey, example:

Oxford Comma: We invited the hookers, JFK, and Stalin.
No Oxford Comma: We invited the hookers, JFK and Stalin.

The problem with the latter is that it changes the meaning of the sentence. Removing that comma basically turns “JFK and Stalin” into a nonrestrictive appositive–there are exactly two hookers and their names are JFK and Stalin. (An example of a restrictive appositive: I have two cats, but am only taking one to the vet, so, “I’m taking my cat Fluffy to the vet.”)

The Oxford Comma is good for clarity. Some people argue that it’s not necessary because typically people will get that it’s a list, but why leave it to other people’s critical reasoning when you can just kill the ambiguity?

Embrace the Oxford Comma. It’s a beautiful thing.