Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ten Rules of Quoted Speech

Unlike other kinds of writing you might do for school, storytelling thrives on quoted speech, also known as direct speech. In a traditional academic paper, indirect speech is the norm, but in a story it's easier and more natural to let the characters speak for themselves. So, if you are writing a story, you'll probably be using at least some direct speech. I hope this page will help you feel confident to do that, and if you have any questions that I have not answered here, please let me know!

Direct versus indirect. Direct speech means we get to hear the words as they come directly from the mouth of the character. In indirect speech, the words are reported in a subordinate clause. Direct speech uses quotation marks; indirect speech does not. If you compare direct versus indirect speech in these examples, I think you will see that direct speech is more clear, more succinct — and more alive!

INDIRECT   DIRECT
The hare said that he would challenge the tortoise to a race.    The hare said, "I will challenge the tortoise to a race!"
The hare thought that he could beat the tortoise easily.    The hare thought, "I can beat the tortoise easily!"
The hare asked the tortoise whether he would agree to a race.    The hare asked the tortoise, "Will you agree to a race?"

As these examples show, indirect speech has complicated rules for how to change the verbs and pronouns from the direct statement into their indirect restatement. When you use direct speech, you don't have to change the words, but you do have to know how to use the punctuation marks that separate the quoted words from the rest of the story. The rules below explain just how to do that:


Rule #1: Use quotation marks for all direct speech. 

When someone's words are repeated exactly as that person said or wrote them, you need to put those words in quotation marks:
  • The hare said, "I will challenge the tortoise to a race."
Direct speech is not limited to words that are spoken out loud or written down. You should also report someone's thoughts as direct speech inside quotation marks:
  • The hare thought, "I know I can beat the tortoise easily!"
Note that an explicit verb of speaking or thinking is not required. The quotation marks alone can be enough to indicate the transition to direct speech:
  • The tortoise pondered for a moment, grinned, and nodded slowly. "I accept your offer, Mr. Hare."
When you are writing dialogue, you will need to decide on the best mix of dialogue tags (words like "said," "asked," etc.) and dialogue beats (words that describe the action). Either way, the quoted words still go inside quotation marks.


Rule #2: Quotation marks are used in pairs. 

There is an opening quotation mark that comes before the first word of the quoted speech, and then there is a closing quotation mark that comes after the last word of the quoted speech.
  • The hare said to the tortoise, "You are so slow that I will beat you very easily."
In some fonts, you can see a slightly different shape used for the opening and closing quotation marks:
  • The hare said to the tortoise, “You are so slow that I will beat you very easily.”
This style is sometimes called "smart quotes," and it is usually a feature you can turn on or off in your word processor based on which style you prefer.


Rule #3: The first word of a quoted sentence is capitalized. 

In quoted speech, just as in other forms of writing, you capitalize the first word of every sentence:
  • "When should we do it?" asked the tortoise.
Here's what can be tricky: you also capitalize the first word of the quoted sentence even when it is being inserted inside another sentence, as in this example:
  • The tortoise asked, "When should we do it?"
The word "When" is capitalized because it is the first word of a quoted sentence, even though it is not the first word of the main sentence.


Rule #4: You can include multiple sentences inside a single set of quotation marks. 

As long as the character is speaking, you can keep on quoting those words inside the same set of quotation marks. Here is an example where there are three sentences inside the quotation marks:
  • The hare said to the tortoise, "You are so slow that I will beat you very easily. In fact, I feel sorry for you because you are so slow. I know I will defeat you!"
The opening quotation mark shows where the hare started speaking, and the closing quotation mark shows where the hare stopped speaking. All three sentences go inside the single pair of quotation marks.


Rule #5: When the QUOTED SPEECH comes AFTER the verb of speaking, you use a comma after the verb of speaking and before the quoted speech. 

Here's an example that shows quoted speech after the verb of speaking, with a comma between the verb of speaking and the quoted speech:
  • The hare said to the tortoise, "I challenge you to a race!"
This use of the comma helps the reader by signaling the break between the main sentence and the quoted speech while letting us know that this is still one big sentence.


Rule #6: When the QUOTED SPEECH comes BEFORE the verb of speaking and the final sentence of the quoted speech ends with a PERIOD, you replace the period at the end of the final quoted sentence with a comma. 

Here is an example where the quoted speech, ending with a period, comes before the verb of speaking. The period at the end of the quoted speech changes to a comma:
  • "I accept your challenge," the tortoise replied.
The original quoted sentence ended with a period: "I accept your challenge." This rule only applies to quoted sentences that end with a period; for sentences that end with a question mark or with an exclamation mark, see the next rule.


Rule #7: When the QUOTED SPEECH comes BEFORE the verb of speaking and the final sentence of the quoted speech ends with an EXCLAMATION MARK or a QUESTION MARK, you do NOT replace the exclamation mark or question mark with a comma. 

Instead of replacing the exclamation mark or question mark with a comma, you just leave it unchanged. Here's an example with an exclamation mark:
  • "I challenge you to a race!" the hare said to the tortoise.
Here's an example with a question mark:
  • "When should we do it?" asked the hare.
You can combine Rule #6 and Rule #7 as follows: when you have quoted speech coming before the verb of speaking, you replace the final period of the quoted speech with a comma — but you do not replace an exclamation mark or a question mark.


Rule #8: You can split a quoted sentence into two parts that are wrapped around the verb of speaking. 

When the quoted sentence is split, you put a comma after the first chunk of quoted speech, and you also put a comma after the verb of speaking clause. Here is an example:
  • "I challenge you," the hare said, "to a race!"
The quoted statement ("I challenge you to a race!") has been wrapped around the verb of speaking. To make this style work, you need both commas: a comma after the first chunk of quoted speech, along with a comma after the verb of speaking. These commas signal the breaks between direct and indirect speech while alerting us that this is still one big sentence.


Rule #9: Punctuation marks for quoted speech always go inside the quotation marks, not outside. 

Here are some examples:
  • Period: "I accept your challenge."
  • Comma: "I accept your challenge," replied the tortoise.
  • Question Mark: "When should we do it?" asked the hare.
  • Exclamation Mark: "I challenge you to a race!" the hare said to the tortoise.
All four types of punctuation marks — period, comma, question mark, and exclamation mark — go inside the quotation marks that indicate quoted speech. This is a rule that does not necessarily apply to other uses of quotation marks in English, but it is a rule you can confidently apply to quoted speech.


Rule #10: After you have closed a quotation in one sentence, you need to use a new set of quotation marks for quoted speech in the next sentence.

When you have a quoted sentence (or sentences) together with a verb of speaking, that is a complete sentence. As a result, you need another set of quotation marks to indicate quoted speech in the next sentence. Here's an example of a complete sentence using quoted speech:
  • "I challenge you to a race!" the hare said to the tortoise.
If the hare is going to start speaking again in the next sentence, you need another set of quotation marks, even if the hare is still the speaker:
  • "I challenge you to a race!" the hare said to the tortoise. "You are so slow that I will beat you very easily. In fact, I feel sorry for you already because I know you will lose."
If you have multiple paragraphs of quoted speech by the same speaker, see this page for what to do: Quoted Paragraphs.

~ ~ ~

As for the tortoise and the hare, I am sure you know what happened: the hare was not just confident — he was overconfident, and the tortoise turned out to be the winner of the race. Slow and steady wins the race. It applies to writing too: slow down, proofread, and make sure you are using the correct punctuation for the quoted speech in your stories. It's a winning strategy! :-)


(image source)


Note: There are some other uses of quotation marks in English, such as "scare quotes" and the use of quotation marks with the titles of short works, like short stories or poems (Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," for example). Some of those other uses of quotation marks have different rules than the rules listed below. If you are looking for more information about all the different uses of quotation marks in English, Purdue OWL's Quotation Mark pages are very useful.

10 comments:

  1. This is so helpful. Thank you very much!

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  2. You also need the rule about what to do when there is a new paragraph within the quoted speech.

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  3. Luckily that doesn't come up very often in my students' writing; that's why it's not on the list here. :-)

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  4. Hi, I'm editing a story at the moment and this has been really helpful.

    Am just wondering on the ruling of commas for a combo of rule #5 and #6.
    When there is speech, dialogue tag/beat followed by more speech, do we use the comma at the end of the first speech or before the second speech? I understand if the speech is broken you would use a comma in both instances but unsure on the ruling if everything spoken is complete sentences?

    Also if the speech is a full sentence, followed by dialogue tag/beat which makes a full sentence is it acceptable to end both sentences with a period?

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    1. That is a good question, Cameron! If the first chunk of quoted speech is a complete sentence, then you put a comma after the tag/beat. The idea of the second comma is to alert you that the QUOTED speech is continuing:

      "After this long hike, I am really tired," the boy said. "I'm practically asleep on my feet!"
      [first quoted sentence is a complete statement (After this long hike, I am really tired), so you put a period when that sentence, which consists of quote and the tag/beat, is done]

      "After this long hike," the boy said, "I am really tired. I'm practically asleep on my feet!"
      [first quoted sentence is split so there are two commas: first comma alerts reader to the idea that the tag/beat is coming, and the second one reminds us that the first chunk of quoted words is not yet a complete sentence]

      I wasn't quite sure if that answers your question or not. Let me know if I misunderstood!

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  5. Perfect! Cheers Laura!
    A couple of years ago I started writing a novel out of the blue. Editing the novel has taught me how little I actually understand the English language!

    I now have your page set as a favourite for future reference.

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    1. Oh, super: I am glad it is useful. This is something I did for my students because they learn all about footnotes and bibliography but not about dialogue. But writing novels with dialogue is so much more fun than writing academic papers with footnotes. :-)

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  6. Hi Laura, I am wondering what the best way of differentiating speech and thoughts would be?
    I want it to be obvious whether the words are coming out of my characters mouth, or simply going on in her head. Without having to put she said, she thought after each action.
    In many instances her thoughts are followed immediately by speech.
    I am considering italics for thoughts, but your opinion would be greatly appreciated.
    Many Thanks,
    Louise

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    1. I think italics are a great solution - and you can experiment with that, seeing if you even want to use quotation marks at all or not. The point here is just to help your readers have some orientation and help from you. If they are going to be looking at your writing in a format where you are pretty sure the italics will come through, then that works great... but if you are thinking of doing an audiobook too, there won't be italics in the audio! It's a really fascinating question, and the only solution is to experiment and see what you think works best for your writing and your audience! :-)

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