Pretty Punctuation


I used to think that the minor rules of punctuation were based mostly on elitist affectation. Petty people with expensive educations that liked pointing out missing dashes and dots for a fleeting moment of superiority.

I was wrong.

Punctuation, like all literary devices, is there to help the writer get a succinct, accurate meaning across. To discard punctuation, in this specific case the proper use of quotations, is like a sculptor wielding a sledgehammer. Messy, messy, messy.

Use the following rules to ensure sure your rhythm and reason are on the page, just as intended.

1. Each new speaker/new line of dialogue, goes on a separate line.

“Why?” she asked?

“Because,” he replied.

“Because why?”

“It’s just a bloody rule,” he said, exasperated. “I don’t know who invented it. But if a different person speaks, they get their own damn line.”

2. Always use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line.

“I would like to punctuate my dialogue correctly,” she told him as she gripped her manuscript.


Brits and Americans have varying rules, but generally, commas and stops always go inside the quotation marks. The other dashes and dots aren’t cool enough to join the club – semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points go outside, unless directly pertaining to the material within the quotes. Sounds too technical? Here’s an example.

“Do publishers always pick newbie writers by their poor punctuation?” asked the trembling wordsmith.

In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted:

Did you hear, “We should all punctuate properly”?

Those with a sharp eye will note that the sentence ends with one punctuation mark (no stop after “properly”). In general, don’t use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods.

3. To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes.

“And then he says to me, ‘I’m going to put a stop to this!'” cried the jealous semicolon.

quotation rules punctuation4. For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent.

Is he for real? mused the exclamation mark.

5. Don’t close off multiple paragraphs of dialogue.

If your character has a long quotation that spills over one paragraph, don’t close the paragraph off with a quotation, but start the next paragraph with a quotation and close that paragraph off, if the character has finished speaking.

6. single or double quotations? It’s a matter of taste. 

One of many grammatical battles that will continue to rage on throughout time. There is no definitive answer, “Apparently double quotations are fine,” but added the wordsmith, ‘you can use singles also.’ Personally, I prefer doubles. Theyr’re more commonly used, and so they appear more normal. More normal = less distracting for the reader. And it makes them stand out from apostrophes.

4. Use quotations marks for:

  • Titles of short or minor works
  • Songs
  • Short Stories
  • Essays
  • Short Poems
  • One Act Plays
  • Other literary works shorter than a three act play or complete book
  • Titles of sections from longer works
  • Chapters in books
  • Articles in newspapers, magazines, or journals
  • Episodes of television and radio series

Underlining or italics are used for the titles of long pieces or works that contain smaller sections.

Ready to go and rock all those pretty little symbols? Or want some more great writing tips?


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