How To Punctuate Speech and Thought in Your Writing

The Elements of StyleA Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of PunctuationLapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print - And How to Avoid ThemWriting DialogueOxford A-Z of Grammar and PunctuationThe Penguin Guide to PunctuationThe Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and PoetryThe Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: An Easy-to-use Guide with Clear Rules, Real-world Examples, and Reproducible Quizzes

Many amateur fiction writers are uncertain how they should punctuate speech and thought in their writing. The following may clear up some of these uncertainties:

Punctuation when attributing speech in writing

Written speech tends to be marked by quotation marks (‘single’ or “double”) to indicate what is speech and what is general narration. For example:

“Wow. That’s excellent,” I said.

In this example it is clear what was said (Wow. That’s excellent.) and who said it (the character narrating that part of the story).

Alternatively, the following could be used to convey the same content:

I said, “Wow. That’s excellent.”

Note the comma which leads out of the speech in the first example and the comma which leads into the speech in the second example. The comma in each example serves no purpose in clarify what is speech and what is general narration, nor in clarifying who said that bit of speech, but the comma is so commonly included that some would deem it an error to leave it out. If you intend to submit to a major publisher, I would recommend including the comma.

The following example is something which confuses many amateur writers:

“Wow,” I said. “That’s excellent.”

Many writers are not sure whether to put a full stop or a comma after the word said. A full stop is appropriate in this example; a comma would suggest that the character said “Wow, that’s excellent.”  This is a plausible sentence too – but not the same as the previous examples. The importance of getting the decision of comma or full stop right is more evident in an example like: “That’s excellent,” I said. “What a great idea.” Putting a comma in this example would suggest the character said the grammatically incorrect: “That’s excellent, what a great idea.”

Punctuation when attributing thought in writing

Thought is expressed in writing much the same way speech is. Some writers put the words thought in italics to separate it from general narration. Others use underlining or single quotation marks (with double quotation marks for speech, to clearly differentiate the two). The important thing is that the writer uses these consistently, so a reader will know what is speech, what is thought and what is general narration.

In the following examples, it is clear what is the character’s thought and what is general narration:

Wow. That’s excellent, I thought.

Wow. That’s excellent.

Wow, I thought. That’s excellent.

I thought, Wow. That’s excellent.

In the following examples, it is not clear what is the character’s thought and what is general narration:

Wow. That’s excellent, I thought.

Wow. That’s excellent.

Wow, I thought. That’s excellent.

I thought, Wow. That’s excellent.

***

You can follow the writing journeys of a range of Australian first-time novelists at Writing Novels in Australia and gain some insight into how they each approach such issues in their novel manuscript.

The Elements of StyleA Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of PunctuationLapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print - And How to Avoid ThemWriting DialogueOxford A-Z of Grammar and PunctuationThe Penguin Guide to PunctuationThe Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and PoetryThe Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: An Easy-to-use Guide with Clear Rules, Real-world Examples, and Reproducible Quizzes

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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3 Responses to How To Punctuate Speech and Thought in Your Writing

  1. That’s all very well, but I note that some best-selling authors, such as Tim Winton, quite happily dispense with the formal conventions of writing speech (punctuation and attribution) altogether, often making protracted conversations irritatingly hard to follow. I couldn’t get ‘into’ Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music” and I am sure this was, at least in part, due to irritation with slabs of dialogue.

    • auslit says:

      Hi Irene,

      Thanks for your comment.

      There can be a big difference between books and authors that achieve sales following large cash prizes and media coverage surrounding these large cash prizes, and other books. Sales figures for winners of large cash prizes are not necessarily an indication of levels of approval of a book or author, or the style in which it was written, with the general public.

      Many people tend to buy the former and read it to the end to ‘see what the big deal is’ with that book or author (or to get ideas on how they might write something to win a big cash prize themself) and are often reluctant to say they didn’t like it, whereas many people tend to put down the latter if they flick through it and find something irritating about the way it is written. These prize winners are also often put on education curriculums, driving sometimes thousands of sales per semester which would not have otherwise occurred (and many of these readers may not even like the book or the style of written expression in it).

      These prize winning books may be good or bad (and various people will have different opinions on what is good and what is bad) in various aspects of their content and the style in which they’re written but sales figures are not necessarily an indicator of this.

      Many people will also forgive something they don’t like about a book if they think it’s outweighed by what they do like about the book.

      Many people will also forgive alot which they don’t like if the book seems to endorse a ’cause’ or ‘message’ they support, or if many of the people they associate with (or a few influential people) express support for the book.

      This post is more concerned with the idea that clarity of written expression is important for comprehension. Clarity of expression also helps the writing to be read more smoothly, which tends to contribute to a more enjoyable reading experience.

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