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PUNCTUATING THE DIALOGUE

This seems to be confusing to many of us. When given a choice between a period and comma, some fans choose the wrong one 100% of the time. Do not be afraid of commas. So many of you seem to be, as demonstrated by this sample:

While it did not kill, to those who were weak enough, it could send someone into a catatonic state--or a comma.

  1. If the sentence ends within the quotation marks, use a period or a question mark or exclamation point inside the quotes. HOWEVER, if you tacked on a “he spoke” (against Ms. Nitpicker’s advice), then the sentence isn’t over; you will not end the dialogue with a period. Yes, there are exceptions. Most of the time, in dialogue, you need not consider “she said” as a full sentence. The exception would be if it’s followed by a subject. For instance, NOT:
    “I knew that.” He said.
    And NOT:
    “I knew that.” he said.
    But you COULD say:
    “I knew that,” he said.
    Or you could say:
    “I knew that.” He said it meekly, ready to apologize.
    The “it” made all the difference.

    If this is too difficult, perhaps you should never end dialogue with a period unless there are no words whatsoever after the quotation marks, and hope a beta reader will catch any excess commas for you. You will still make mistakes, but Ms. Nitpicker suspects there will be fewer mistakes.

  2. Just because you have descriptive narrative words between sentences of dialogue doesn’t mean the sentence in the dialogue is continuing. This is wrong:
    “Take it easy, guys,” he managed, extending his hand to Jim, “Try not to get into much trouble while I’m away.”
    Put a period after Jim’s name. That part of the sentence described how he said the first piece of dialogue, and now it’s over. The next bit of dialogue stands alone. This is also wrong:
    “Jim,” the voice that called to him seemed to be coming from a great distance.
    The sentence ended with “Jim.” That means the narrative part--which is a complete stand-alone sentence by itself--should start with a capital “T.” If you wanted the dialogue to be part of the narrative sentence, you’d have to say:
    “Jim,” the voice called to him, seeming to be coming from a great distance.

  3. A very, very few of us think that we must always put a comma or colon or semi-colon after the ending quotation, just before the unnecessary “he stated.” Ms. Nitpicker knows who you are. Someday you will have a comma (followed by end quotes) branded on your left hand, and a period followed by end quotes on the right. If you still don’t stop, a question mark and exclamation point will be embossed on more private and sensitive parts of your anatomy. Do not think she is jesting. Ms. Nitpicker has yanked the keys from an old typewriter and is already heating them in a burner.

    This leads us to:

PUNCTUATION (NOT JUST IN DIALOGUE)

  1. If you interrupt your sentence with a dash, you must end the interruption with either more hyphens or with a period/exclamation point/question mark. You will not end the phrase with a comma and slide back into the sentence hoping no one will notice you switched horses in mid-stream. Please, no drowning horses! Dashes and commas don’t mix well, and they ask that you respect their wishes and segregate them.

    Furthermore, dashes are two hyphens. They indicate a break in the speech, or a slightly longer pause than a comma. Don’t try to make them pretty. They are not a space, hyphen, space; nor are they a space, two hyphens, space. Dashes are in such a hurry that they have no time to insert spaces.

    Sometimes, particularly in a list, too many commas are confusing. That’s where the half-breed comma, the semi-colon, comes in handy. For instance, this is wrong:

    Odo caressed Lwaxana’s cheek, her throat, her rounded shoulder, her long, slim, be-ringed fingers.
    It sounds like he’s caressing her “long,” whatever that is. This would make it readable:
    Odo caressed Lwaxana’s cheek; her throat; her rounded shoulder; her long, slim, be-ringed fingers.

  2. The semi-colon is also used to separate two full sentences that you want closely connected; perhaps you want the pause between those two thoughts to be shorter than one caused by a period. This example needs a dictionary check, a knowledge of how to use “thankfully” (covered in VOCABULARY), a comma in a different place, and a semi-colon:
    She couldn’t remember most of what the tattooed man had done to her, thankfully excrutiating pain had blocked out most of the unnatural acts.

  3. Lists of things are usually proceeded by a full colon. (By the way, Ms. Nitpicker did mean ”preceded,” unlike the on-line author who used it in place of “proceeded.”) This is wrong:
    On the way, Amanda busied herself by pointing things out to the other woman, the flower, the Eiffel Tower, the tiny ships.
    Amanda appears to be pointing out things to the flower and the Eiffel Tower, which Ms. Nitpicker doubts are interested. It needs a colon after “woman,” not a comma. This is correct:
    He reviewed the things he loathed about Ms. Nitpicker: her arrogance, her obsession with punctuation, and her habit of using his bad grammar as examples on her Web page.

  4. Lists separated by commas and words like “and” should all consist of the same parts of speech. For instance, this story had the wrong idea:
    Methos had been civil, serious, and worked hard.
    He “had been civil” and he “had been serious” and he “had been worked hard”? Ms. Nitpicker does not think so. This is right:
    “Methos had been civil, serious, and hard-working.”
    Another fannish author tried this:
    He just had time to lean back against the wall, close his eyes, and did his best to look asleep.
    No, dear. He just had time to lean back against the wall, close his eyes, and do his best to look asleep. That’s all he had time for.

    In short, if two of the three words are nouns, the last should be; if two of three are verbs, they all should be; if two of the words are present tense, they all...well, you get the idea.

  5. Despite the suggestions about substituting semi-colons and colons, COMMAS ARE OUR FRIENDS. Yes, some of you sprinkle them about randomly and inappropriately, but generally there is a lack of them out there. (See the items under DIALOGUE, above.) Some sentences change their meaning entirely without the comma.
    He watched as the men moved toward him and prayed for death.
    Why were the mad rapists praying for death? They were about to have sex with a truly handsome young man. No, Ms. Nitpicker suspects the victim was praying for death as well as watching, but without the comma, it appears that the men are moving and praying. (In some tales, Ms. Nitpicker couldn’t tell who was about to fall off the cliff--the villain or the victim--because of an excess of pronouns and lack of commas.)

  6. Questions should be followed by question marks, whether or not they’re part of dialogue, even if they’re rhetorical questions. If the villain says, “Why don’t you sit down and wait?” we all understand it’s an order, but it was phrased as a question and gets the appropriate symbol. The word “asked” is a helpful clue; if you use it, then review your dialogue and see if you remembered to use a question mark. The same rules apply with clues such as “why” and “what” and “who.”

  7. When someone trails off and then picks up again, we indicate that with an ellipsis, or three trailing dots. HOWEVER, when the sentence trails off at the very end and dies, it is helpful to add a period to end the sentence, so there should be four dots. This is most frequently needed in dialogue:
    “I...well...okay, maybe I did make that mistake in the past, but...um....”
    Four out of five grammar or rhetoric texts consulted by Ms. Nitpicker left it at that; only one used a comma at the end of the ellipsis instead of a period:
    “It...seems to me...” Ms. Nitpicker advised, hesitantly, “...wrong to put a comma at the end of an ellipsis…no matter what some texts are doing nowadays.”
    Remember, an ellipsis indicates a thought trailing off; if the sentence breaks off abruptly, as when someone is interrupted, it’s generally indicated by a dash (two hyphens).

    Word processors may try to be "helpful" by converting your ellipsis to some weird image. Hit the "undo" button (it looks like a back arrow on your toolbar) when it does this, and it will surrender and give you back your three dots.

  8. Although the ellipsis is...nice, some on-line authors have characters end EVERY SINGLE THOUGHT OR SENTENCE with an ellipsis.... Most action characters are firm, decisive folks. They wouldn’t let their voices trail off in confusion at the end of every sentence. Don’t overuse this. Periods are our friends, too.

  9. No sentence fragments. None. Or at least keep them to a minimum. Just a few. Certainly none that start with a word ending in “ing,” as in, “Feeling guilty about leaving him.” That is a clause describing something in another sentence, not a sentence in itself. An ellipsis spreads out any needed pause, so we realize there’s a dramatic hesitation before the next sentence--so why not use that? Ms. Nitpicker is aware that many published authors are using this jerky style of writing, but that doesn’t make it right. This is bad grammar:
    The flow of words suddenly halting as something caught his attention.
    It holds no meaning unless it’s tacked onto the sentence ahead of it. Read each sentence SEPARATELY; if it makes no sense, you may not have a sentence. This, too, is wrong:
    He was going to kill the kid. Slowly. Painfully.
    This is better:
    He was going to kill the kid...slowly, and painfully.
    We still understand the pause and emphasis that bad writers would indicate with periods and sentence fragments, yet we’ve written a real sentence that would get a passing grade even if we took the dots out. You may also use dashes, as in:
    He was going to kill the kid--slowly, and painfully.
    Ms. Nitpicker will cut you some slack here. You may use one sentence fragment per story, to achieve a dramatic effect. Okay, she is in a good mood, she’ll make it one per five pages. But some fen cannot write in full sentences, and that must stop.

  10. When writing a sentence like this, you need to know that the first person, place, or thing that follows the comma is the person/place/thing involved with that clause. For instance, an on-line story claimed:
    …picking them up, a broad grin appeared on his face.
    A broad grin picked them up? Ms. Nitpicker doesn’t think so. Another story tried this:
    Taking her in his arms, they kissed passionately.
    Ms. Nitpicker doesn’t believe their arms kissed; she suspects lips were involved and the people were the ones kissing passionately. This whole sentence is a failure; either it would be, “Taking her in his arms, he kissed her passionately,” or “Falling into each other’s arms, they kissed passionately.”

    In other words, you may not say things like, “Entering the tent, a thought struck him.” The thought may be entering the tent, but only because it’s inside somebody’s mind. More correctly phrased, it would be, “Entering the tent, he was struck by an idea.” (This is certainly better than being struck by a club or rifle butt, in Ms. Nitpicker’s opinion.)

OTHER NITS TO PICK

GENERALITIES
DIALOGUE
CHARACTER THOUGHTS
PUNCTUATION (NOT JUST IN DIALOGUE) You're already there. Period.
VOCABULARY
REDUNDANCY AND REPETITION
MS. NITPICKER'S CONTINUING HALL OF SHAME
CHEAT SHEET INDEX
MS. NITPICKER'S FANFIC GLOSSARY

I'm thoroughly chastened, and I want to return to the home page.

I think I need more guidance. Send me to HOLY MOTHER GRAMMATICA'S GUIDE TO GOOD WRITING or to DANGERMOM'S HANDY-DANDY GRAMMAR GUIDE. Maybe I should visit BAD FANFIC! NO BISCUIT!.

I feel I have learned all I need to learn, and I want to take MS. NITPICKER'S FAN FICTION TEST--HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW GRAMMAR?

Let's cross-examine some stories from this site to see if she follows her own rules. . . .

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