Nothing marks a beginning writer faster than improperly punctuated dialogue. Learn these rules, and you'll avoid obvious mistakes:
- Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line (the words used to identify the speaker: "he said/she said"):
"I would like to go to the beach this weekend," she told him as they left the apartment.
- Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks in American writing (the Brits have slightly different rules); other punctuation -- semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points -- goes outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes, as in this example from Raymond Carver's "Where I'm Calling From":
"I don't want any stupid cake," says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. "Where's the champagne?" he says, and laughs.
In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted:
Did he say, "We should all go to the movies"?
Also note that the sentence ends with only one mark of punctuation: the question mark. In general, don't use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. (Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods. Think of it as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, if it helps.)
- When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case, as in this example from Flannery O'Connor's "Greenleaf":
"That is," Wesley said, "that neither you nor me is her boy..."
- To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes:
"Have you read 'Hills Like White Elephants' yet?" he asked her.
- For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent.
- If a quotation spills out over more than one paragraph, don't use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is done speaking.
Want to take it to the next level? See more tips on writing dialogue. Or, review the editing checklist to make sure you've got other aspects of grammar covered as well.