What are the grammatical rules for writing dialogue?

Ok, I feel a bit stupid having to ask this especially as I knew it at school but years of not having to write dialogue means it’s almost completely evaporated from my mind.

What are the grammatical rules for writing dialogue?

I don’t mean how can I make it sound natural and interesting, I mean what are the grammatical rules for writing it down i.e. what punctuation do I use, where do I put it, when should dialogue be on a new paragraph etc.

I know these are basics but what can I say? I’ve forgotten them and when I search for the rules or pick up a writing book to check, all I find are discussions on the character of the actual dialogue rather than the basic grammatical rules. If anyone can point me to a free, concise guide, I’d be grateful.

By the way, I’m in the UK so if there are different national rules, I’d prefer the UK set.


This is a good source for the sort of advice you’re seeking — just carry out searches for “Dialogue”, “Quotations” and similar terms.

Thanks for that but it was actually after having done a search on that site that finally prompted me to ask the question here.

I’m hoping for a link to somewhere (maybe a PDF) where someone has gathered all the rules together in a simple, clear and concise one page reference (preferably with examples).

The trick is to basically punctuate the whole sentence, not just the bit in quotes. So…

“It was a disaster,” said Dave. “I still can’t believe it.”

It was a disaster said Dave is one sentence, so don’t close the quotes with a full stop. You can use question marks or exclamation points if required.

I still can’t believe it is a full sentence so ends with a stop. (it doesn’t have a dialogue tag such as said Dave after it.

As for the use of single or double quotes, there are two schools of thought:
“And that’s when John said ‘Hi’ to me,” said Dave.
‘And that’s when John said “Hi” to me,’ said Dave.

The first version is norm in America. The second is the norm in the UK. However, as with much these days the lines are blurring. Pick one and make sure you use it consistently.

Never have dialogue from more than one person in the same paragraph, and generally speaking start a new paragraph for each instance of dialogue. But, don’t be frightened to mix a bit of action with the speaking:

“The look on your face is priceless,” said Dave as he toyed with the axe.
John backed off slowly. “There’s no need to get all swingy with that thing.”

The other thing to note is that if a character goes into a monolgue that extends into more than one paragraph then you don’t close the first paragraph with a dialogue mark, but you do start the second one with one:

Dave let the axe fall to the floor. The blood from the blade was going to leave a nasty stain on the carpet but there was nothing he could do about that now. "I thought we were close, John, but you were a bad friend. You messed with the wiring on my kettle causing the explosion that killed my twin brother and you had to pay for that. Finding you was easy, I followed you home from your night class in t-shirt design and lay in wait in your back garden for you to need air. You were bound to need air eventually in this weather, especially with the guilt you’ve been carrying around.
“Still, it’s over now. Live with that. Oh, you can’t. Ha!”

(or something)

If stuck, flicking through a nearby novel will usually give you the answer.

Thanks, that’s useful.

Try here:


One difference between British and American conventions is:

Found here:


There is another convention difference between US and UK:

If the quotation is just one or two words or if is is a “scare quote”, and the string immediately precedes a punctuation mark, the US convention is that the punctuation mark always goes inside the quotation mark; the UK convention is to put the punctuation mark outside the quotation mark, as above with “scare quote”.

In the UK convention, the punctuation mark only goes inside the quotation if the quotation in question is a full sentence in the case of a full-stop or is followed by ‘x said, etc.’ when it’s a comma, as in Pigfender’s examples.

I had a dispute over this with the column editor on an English language newspaper here in China, as their “foreign polisher” had messed with my punctuation putting it to American style. To try to resolve it, she asked all the polishers in the China Daily group, and told me half of them agreed with the other guy, half with me … so I told her she’d find that the ones who agreed with me were British.

Just to add salt in the wound, the column next to mine, written by the editor herself, was full of infelicities and grammatical mistakes … the job of the polishers was to revise any text that originated from native English sources, but not that written by the Chinese reporters! (“That’s how we say it in China” is the excuse.) So, on 21st Century, all the polishers were American, and they messed with my text … which was carefully crafted in a Word 5.1a template that I set up to match perfectly their layout even down to hyphenation of the output, and matched all their style guidelines — apart from this disagreement about punctuation. Fortunately, the editor agreed to send me the “polished” text before it was finally printed. In every case, I sent her up to three pages of explanation as to why their polisher was wrong in the changes they were making! They published my versions in the end … but on that occasion with American punctuation**!


** My solution to this problem thereafter was to ensure that I never ended a sentence or a clause with words in scare quotes, so the issue wouldn’t arise!

Thanks for the help…

How about ‘speech’ that’s thought rather than said out loud? What are the rules/conventions for that? Treat it the same way as real speech? Put it in quotes? Start in a new paragraph? etc

“I’m in the same boat,” he said. “I’ll be watching closely to find if there is a convention for internal dialogue.” I know I always use italics without quotes, but I wonder if that is an acceptable convention, or if I should do something different.

I’ve seen inner dialogue done just like external dialogue (but with a “he thought” tag), but the thought was short and inner dialogue was pretty rare in that story. I’ll be studying this more closely as I start to revise my first “finished” rough draft. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly a matter of consistency on the part of the author. I even recall a story where telepathic communication was enclosed with two asterisks, ** like this.**

Be very careful with internal dialogue - handled poorly it can give the reader motion sickness from being constantly pulled from one perspective to another.

It’s most effective when the narrator is either ‘godlike’ or even better the narrator is the thinker.

“That’s wonderful, darling!” I said. Bloody lie. My dog can do better. “Show me again!”

I’m writing a story that includes a character that can’t speak so I have a definite need for a regular sprinkling of ‘thought’ dialogue from him.

In that case you will definitely want to BUY MY BOOK for inspiration:

Circus Detectives! Yeah!

One of the things that took me a long time to figure out is punctuating dialogue with question or exclamation marks.

The old-fashioned rule is that question or exclamation marks always demand a capital following, whether related to dialogue or not. However, modern usage is more context dependent:

‘Really?’ he said, trying to come up with a polite way of saying that’s completely nuts. ‘You’re sure?’

‘Really?’ He tried to come up with a polite way of saying you’re nuts. ‘Are you sure?’

Punctuating after ellipses and em dashes can be awkward, too. Also, internal monologue in italics with a question mark as part of a run-on sentence. I don’t know if anyone has put together a handy online tip sheet for this stuff, but I could never find one. Had to work it out through a lot of reading!

Nor me. The frustrating thing is I knew it at school and picked it up very easily as I remember. There must be some primary school text book with it all in… or maybe it’s just the ones from the Seventies that include it? :confused:

I don’t know of a handy tear-sheet either. But a quick glance through a well-reviewed novel, one of the Harry Potters, for instance, should provide plenty of examples of good practice. Ms. Rowling’s been criticised for overdoing adverbs, but I don’t believe anyone’s complained about her punctuation. :slight_smile:

By the way, I don’t think


would ever have been treated the same. Well, not in my lifetime. :confused:

Generally speaking (I’m sure there are exceptions) the question one asks oneself is: ‘Is this the start of a new thought and sentence?’ If so, the initial letter should be capitalised. The same goes for ellipses, most of the time. As far as em-dashes are concerned, I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head where you’d follow the dash with a capital letter (other than for a proper noun)—but there may be some! :wink:

Edit: well here you are, an example from Catch 22 of a capital letter following an em-dash:

I suppose here the dash is functioning as an ellipsis, and—yes—‘Crazy!’ starts a new thought and sentence.

Don’t forget to write ‘Fred said’ rather than ‘said Fred’. In other words, name first (you wouldn’t write ‘said I’ would you?)

I always use single quotes rather than double, I think it looks neater and find it less distracting.

Use an em-line (long dash) to break off speech if someone is being interrupted, but use an ellipsis if their words just tail off.

Hope that helps

But this is style, rather than grammar - ‘said Fred’ is perfectly correct grammatically.

And sometimes the context and rhythm of the text makes ‘said Fred’ a better choice stylistically, surely?

[i]‘I can’t believe it’s not a marketing exercise’, said Fred, who preferred his sandwich spread to have had some contact with a real cow.

‘I can’t believe it’s not a marketing exercise’, Fred, who preferred his sandwich spread to have had some contact with a real cow, said.[/i]

It’s not clear that the second sentence is automatically preferable in every circumstance - depends on the effect you’re trying to get.

There are rules too about single or double quotes.

dialogue in North America is included in double quotes and I believe the dialogue in the UK uses single quotes.

There are tons of sites on-line that give you advice on this.

If you can point me to a free, concise guide (preferably with examples), I’d be grateful.

Here’s another punctuation guide that covers some pretty rare cases such as breaking dialogue with an action:

Punctuating Dialogue: A Guide