Dialogue: Punctuation, Capitalization, Spacing

The following sentences illustrate the punctuation and capitalization rules for dialogue and speech tags, with the trouble spots highlighted in red, spacing exaggerated to show where spaces go:

1. Steve said,  "Good morning."

2. "Good morning,"  said Steve.

3. Steve said,  "Good morning,"  then sat down.

4. "Ladies and gentlemen,"  said Steve,  "good morning."

Note the locations and relative positions of punctuation marks (commas, quotation marks, periods) and spaces. Note also which words are capitalized, and which are not. I'll try to explain the rules as best I can, but it might be easier to just follow the corresponding numbered examples.

Example 1: If the sentence begins with a speech tag, the comma goes directly after the last word before the quote, followed by a space, then the quotation marks, then the first word of the quote is capitalized. If the sentence ends with the end of the quote, the period goes right after the last letter of the last word, then the quotation mark, then a space before beginning the next sentence.

Example 2: If the sentence ends with a speech tag, and the quotation would normally end in a period if it was written by itself, the last word of the quote is followed directly by a comma (instead of the period), then the quotation mark, then a space, then the next word (unless it is a proper noun) begins with a lower-case letter. (Note: If the quotation contains more than one sentence, the speech tag CANNOT be placed here. It must be either at the beginning, as in Example 1; at the first punctuation stop, as in Example 4; or eliminated altogether, with the speaker identified by a preceding sentence.)

Example 3: If the quotation is embedded in the middle of a sentence, where the sentence begins with a speech tag and continues after the quotation, the last word before the quote is followed immediately by a comma, then a space, then the quotation mark, then the capital letter to begin the quote. The last word of the quote is followed immediately by a comma, then the quotation mark, then a space, then the sentence continues with a lower-case word (again, unless the word in question is a proper noun).

Example 4: If the quote begins and ends the sentence, and is broken up somewhere midway by a speech tag, the last word of the initial quote is followed immediately by a comma, then the quotation mark, then a space, then the speech tag begins with a lower-case word (unless it's a proper noun); then when the speech tag ends and the quote resumes, the last word of the tag is followed immediately by a comma, then a space, then the quotation mark, then the quoted sentence resumes and the next word begins in lower-case (unless it's a proper noun).

Note that these rules apply to spoken sentences that would normally end in a period when written by themselves; the period becomes a comma if the sentence continues after the quote. However, if the quoted sentence ends in a question mark (?) or exclamation point (!), and the sentence continues after the quote, the question mark or exclamation point
does not change to a comma, the first letter of the first word after the quote is still lower case, and the overall sentence still ends in a period:

"Where did they go?"  she asked.

"Unbelievable!"  shouted the announcer.

If you want to show a character thinking words to himself, without actually speaking them aloud, follow the same punctuation and capitalization rules but eliminate the quotation marks:

Jeff thought,  This is going to be a long day.

This is going to be a long day,  he thought.

Where did they go?  she wondered.

Be careful to use correct punctuation, capitalization and spacing when writing dialogue, and to put everything in its correct order and position. Sometimes a word processing program might make an extra mistake for you; if you were to type:

         "Good morning
." said Steve.

Word would automatically capitalize
said  and you'd end up with two errors:

         "Good morning
." Said Steve.

Remember also that proper nouns
always begin with a capital letter, regardless of their location within a sentence or quotation.

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