“There was something I was going to write about for my Indies Unlimited post this week,” I said to my daughter Kat. “Do you remember what it was?”
“Hmm. Maybe it was punctuation in dialogue,” she said.
“You’re right!” I said. “You were saying that your teachers never went over it in school.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We concentrated on learning the rules for writing essays, because that’s what kids need to know to pass the state-mandated tests.”
I interjected, “Which the kids need to do so the teachers can keep their jobs.”
“Exactly. And there’s no dialogue in an essay.”
“Gotcha,” I said. “So here’s how I think of it. Dialogue is a sentence inside a sentence.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said. “I think you’ll need to give some examples.”
“I was just about to,” I replied. “Let’s use the phrase, ‘do you remember when.’”
She shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.”
“If you’re asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotes: Do you remember when?” I said. “Same for an exclamation mark: I do remember when!”
“But what if the sentence inside the quotes ends with a period?” she asked.
“That’s a little trickier,” I said.
“I knew this was going to get complicated,” she muttered.
“Nah, it’s not that hard,” I said. “You just have to watch where your attribution is.”
“Your ‘she said’ or ‘he said.’ If the attribution comes after the end of the sentence, like I’m doing right now, then you replace the period at the end of the sentence with a comma,” I explained. “And the comma stays inside the quotation marks.”
Then I said, “But if the attribution comes first, like in this paragraph, then the sentence inside the quotes gets a period at the end. And just like with the comma, the period goes inside the quotes.”
“And if there’s no attribution?”
“The stuff inside the quotes gets a period – like this.”
“And if,” I said, “your attribution comes in the middle of a sentence, you need to put a comma before the first close-quote mark.”
“I think I get all that,” she said. “But it’s punctuating the attribution that seems to trip up a lot of people.”
“That’s because they’re not thinking of dialogue as a sentence within a sentence,” I said. “The attribution frames the quote – it’s all one sentence. I’ve seen what you’re talking about, too; they hang the ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ out there as a separate sentence.”
“Yes, like this.” She said.
I said. “Or like this. But it’s wrong. You need to use a comma to tie the quote and the attribution together.”
“Okay. But there are times when you can end a quote without tying it into the next sentence.” She smirked at me.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, missy,” I said. “That second sentence of yours isn’t attribution – it’s a stage direction!”
“Yes!” she cried. “And now let’s talk about a pet peeve of mine, and it’s something I’ve caught you doing.”
“Oh,” I groaned, “I know where this is going.”
“See? See? You just did it again!” she crowed. “There is no way you could have groaned through that whole sentence!”
I hung my head in shame. “You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I should have put a period after ‘groaned’. That’s another reason why ‘said’ is the safest verb to use for attribution. It sure is a good thing you’re one of my beta readers, huh?”
“It’s a good thing for you, yeah,” she said, smirking.