This article will both cover the basic ways to punctuate dialoge in American English and explore some of the less traditional methods. We will also talk about each method affects tone in your story. We will focus on dialogue in prose writing that is being spoken by characters in the story.
Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write, and I wish that my job as a technical writer offered more (or any) opportunities for writing it. In prose, dialogue can be a great way to get inside your characters. However, some writers find punctuating dialogue confusing: How do I use quotation marks? What is a dialogue tag? Where do the commas go? How come I see writers who don't even use quotation marks? Wait, is that an em dash?!
Be sure to introduce the author from the source work within the sentence itself and use quotation marks. No comma is necessary to introduce the quoted phrase.
The top piece of bread will tell us where the quote came from and/or how it fits in with what’s already been discussed in the essay. The bottom piece of bread points out what was important about the quote and elaborates on what was being said.
Block, or indent, quotations longer than four lines of type. When a quotation is indented, the use of quotation marks is not necessary, and the page number is included outside the ending punctuation.
When you are quoting a specific line of literature, you must include quotations around that line, followed by appropriate punctuation within the quotations. According to the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, you must consider the following spacing rules when working with quotations:
According to MLA, only periods and commas are to be placed within quotations. All other forms of punctuation remain outside of the quotes. However, this holds true within American English constructions of quotations.
British English writing, as well as that from Canada and former British territories, will not follow the same rules of punctuation with quotation marks. In those cases, periods and other punctuation is commonly kept outside quotes.
When quoting material from a sources, make sure to copy that material exactly as it appears in the original. You may, however, use an ellipsis ( . . . ) to delete material within the quotation that you feel is unnecessary and that, if deleted, does not change the meaning of the original passage. You may also use [brackets] to clarify the meaning of the passage, not to offer an interpretation of the quotation but to clarify the meaning. For example, you could use brackets to clarify the antecedents of pronouns in the quotation if the antecedents are unclear. Both ellipses and brackets should be used sparingly, and you must be careful not to alter the meaning of the original when you do use them.
Quotations of four typed lines or less should be placed in quotation marks within your text. Quotations longer than four typed lines should be offset and indented an additional 10 spaces, or two tabs, from the left margin (right margins remain the same). Indented quotations, like the rest of your paper, should be double spaced, with no extra spacing before or after the offset and indented quotations. Avoid using long quotes.
Any handbook used in Rhetoric or English courses will give you an acceptable format for incorporating quotations into your writing and punctuating them correctly. The MLA and APA handbooks provide guidance as well.
You should never have a quotation standing alone as a complete sentence, or, worse yet, as an incomplete sentence, in your writing. IVCC's explains this concept well with a good analogy that describes quotations as helium balloons. We all know what happens when you let go of a helium balloon: it flies away. In a way, the same thing happens when you present a quotation that is standing all by itself in your writing, a quotation that is not "held down" by one of your own sentences. The quotation will seem disconnected from your own thoughts and from the flow of your sentences. Ways to integrate quotations properly into your own sentences are explained below. Please note the punctuation: it is correct.
Punctuating quotations is simple, but the rules change slightly, depending on whether the quotation is documented or not. All of your quotations should be documented (usually by just a line or page number in parentheses), but it's important for you to know how documentation affects punctuation, so all the rules are given below.
Different style sheets (MLA, Chicago, etc.) have different conventions for quoting in literary essays. Normally I am tolerant of variations, but many students do not seem aware of some features shared by all for quoting poetry. Please follow the guidelines below (and your other professors will appreciate it if you do this in other classes).