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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Punctuation Within Dialogue

I recently had a reader write me with a question about writing dialogue.  She had read my post about punctuating titles and wanted to know if titles are still punctuated in creative writing when they occur as part of a character’s dialogue.

The more I searched online for a definitive answer to her question, the more frustrated I became at the lack of information available.  That frustration has led me to post my response to her e-mail online.  I’m not an expert when it comes to creative writing, but maybe the little that I do know will help someone else out there with the same question.  At the very least, it lets other confused writers know that they are not alone in their confusion. 

I know my blog doesn’t have that big of an audience, but my other hope is that someone who IS an expert will stumble upon this post and either confirm my conclusions or correct them.  One little post on an obscure blog doesn’t feel like much, but hopefully it will make a difference for someone.

The Question

Hi Carmen,
I know that I would italicize Grey's Anatomy (TV show) but here's my question---do you italicize it within a quote? I'm wondering if that might look kind of goofy or pretentious or something. Here's the quote:

I’d never been inside a hospital before – well, besides the day I was born.  Looking around, as I waited for surgery, I saw a white board with my name written on it.  “Hey,” I told the orderly. “It’s just like ‘Grey’s Anatomy!’”

I put in quotations within quotations--but maybe that also looks goofy. Let me know what you think--thank you---J. F.

The Answer

Hi J.F.,
Sorry it's taken me two days to get back to you; I've been grading essays and working on homework for my own classes. I thought I'd check this e-mail account to give me a mental break.  Ha! Talk about a difficult question!

All kidding aside, I'm glad you wrote me.  I enjoy challenges and your question definitely presents one.  It turns out there are no set rules regarding how to punctuate words within dialogue.  Dialogue is actually one of the areas where authors have the most freedom in deciding whether or not they want to adhere to the standard rules of grammar; because that freedom is limited to characters' speech, no one questions whether or not the author knows how to use spaces or apostrophes correctly when they see something like "ohmygodohmygodohmygod" or "Imma gunna do ya in, boy!"  You can technically do whatever you like without fear of formal rebuke (one or two readers may be convinced you're "wrong," but the lack of prescribed rules for dialogue makes that an impossible call for anyone to make). 

That said, grammar has always been determined by seeing what the majority of other people are doing and then following their example (at least in English).  An example of that is the serial comma - I was taught in grade school that "I will buy bacon, eggs, and ham" has a comma before "and"; if you check grammar books nowadays, that comma is optional (if they bother to mention it at all).  Soooo.... I ran a search on Google to see if I could see how others were punctuating titles in their dialogue. 

I first searched to see if there were any prescribed rules for punctuating dialogue and found sites like the following:,, and  None of them discuss punctuation as it occurs WITHIN dialogue (especially as it applies to titles), just how to properly indicate that a character has commenced speaking.  The lack of resources should ease your mind a little that you won't be breaking any rules however you choose to punctuate the sentence.

The next search I ran was one that included various television show titles in an open-ended sentence to see if I could find any examples of dialogue in action.  Unfortunately, I didn't get any results that showed how other authors have chosen how to deal with your problem.  What I got were a lot of blog entries and reviews discussing how great such and such a show is (usually punctuated incorrectly). 

My best advice would be for you to write different versions of the sentence (one punctuated "correctly" and the other with the title lacking any punctuation) and ask a random assortment of friends which one they would prefer if they came across it in print.  I'm going to go ahead and guess that the majority of people would choose the un-punctuated title - most likely because we don't speak using formal punctuation.

Ultimately, the decision is yours.  I know that's not a very satisfying answer and I wish I could give you something more concrete.  I'm by no means an expert on writing (You actually don't NEED to be an expert - you just need to be famous enough that anything you write is emulated, regardless of how "wrong" it is - but I digress), but if I were trying to write a similar sentence for my own character, I would leave the television show un-punctuated (except for the capital letters in the title).  Italicizing it or putting it in quotation marks, for me, just looks off and, yes, maybe even a little bit like showing off.

For what it's worth, I've asked the question on my Twitter account, but I don't have a large enough following to get a good number of responses from which to draw a definitive conclusion. I'll let you know what answers I get (if any). Oh! And I can ask my students this week! They're barely college-educated (freshmen) community college students (which means their ages range considerably), so hopefully they represent the literary tastes of the majority of Americans (well, Southern ones, at any rate). 

Thanks for the great question! Today began as just another boring day, but now it's filled with grammatical possibilities!

Update on Class “Experiment”

This was a bad week to get results, it turns out, because quite a few students were AWOL (probably having extended Spring Breaks).  I asked the few that did show up to "forget" what we learned in class regarding punctuating titles and to vote on one of two examples of dialogue I put on the projector based on which one they'd prefer to see if reading a novel.  The dialogue was a rather silly example:

Jane said "I love Gray's Anatomy. The doctors are so HOT!"
Julie squealed when she heard Jane's comment. "Ohmygaw! I love that show too!"

The dialogues I put up were identical except for the punctuation of the title of the t.v. show (I italicized it in one).  A total of 31 students said they preferred it without any punctuation (plain text) and 14 voted in favor of the italicized title.  Those numbers look significant, but in one class the votes were split 9 in favor of plain text and 7 in favor of italicization - so I wouldn't put too much stock in the results.

For what it’s worth, I'm going to stick with my initial advice and say that people prefer dialogue to directly reflect speech and to be "plain."

Photo credit: Kris Hoet

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Titles: When to Italicize, Underline, or Use Quotation Marks

Titles are everywhere; we need them in order to be able to refer to any of the countless stories, pictures, blogs, movies, books, songs, and other works of art being created every single day.   Since most writing is about things you’ve experienced- things you’ve read, seen, heard, or touched – chances are very high that you will be including a title of something one day in your writing.

Before that happens, though, you need to know the rules that govern how to correctly write titles.  And when I say “titles,” I’m not referring to forms of addressing people.  Although I’m sure there are specific rules of etiquette that govern when to call someone “Miss” or “Ms.,” the rules I will be describing in this post apply to works of art, like books and music.

When it comes to titles, you can either italicize them or put them in quotation marks.  The 7th edition of the MLA Handbook eliminates underlining (underlining is still acceptable when hand-writing papers). Skip to the end of this post to see a note about underlining titles.  Keeping the rules for italicizing and using quotation marks straight isn’t easy, which is why there are different techniques that make remembering when to do what easier.

Big Things and Little Things

One way of looking at titles is to determine if it belongs to something that is big or something that is little.  A big thing is something that contains little things.  For example, a CD album contains many songs.  A book contains many chapters.  An anthology contains many essays or stories.  A web site contains many web pages.  A TV series contains many episodes. You get the point. 

Once you’ve determined if the title you’re trying to punctuate belongs to a big thing or a little thing, you can punctuate it.  The titles of big things are always italicized, while the titles of little things are placed within quotation marks.  The following are some examples of properly punctuated titles:

  • Words Fail Me is a book with a chapter “Are Your Eggs Ready to Hatch?”
  • The first episode of first season of the British television series Black Books is called “Cooking the Books.”
  • “Head Over Feet” is a song on Alanis Morissette’s third studio album Jagged Little Pill.

As nice as the “big things/little things” trick is for remembering how to punctuate titles, it stops working when it encounters more complex collections of art.  For example, how do you punctuate the titles of the plays you bought in a book called The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare? Are they considered chapters? They are little things inside of a bigger book, after all.  What about Beowulf?  It’s a poem, which is a little thing, but the MLA Handbook says that poems which are “long” need to be italicized.  What exactly does “long” mean and how are you going to remember to include those poems in with big things?

Don’t toss the towel in yet on this whole punctuating titles business – I’ve come up with a different way to remember whether or not to italicize or put a title in quotation marks.

Can You Buy It?

If you can go out and physically buy a copy of whatever title it is you’re trying to punctuate, italicize it.  If you can’t, put it in quotation marks. 

Since you can go to Barnes and Noble and find Beowulf on the shelves, it gets italicized.  The same can be said about each one of Shakespeare’s plays; you can find them in one large collected works book OR you can find them sold individually.  What you can’t do is drop by Blockbuster and try to rent ONLY the one episode of Lost you missedYou have to rent the DVD that has several episodes on it, one of which being the episode you missed.  Therefore, you put episode titles of television series in quotation marks. 

This idea even works for web sites and web pages.  When you buy a domain, you’re buying only up to the first .com or .org or .info (or whatever extension you chose).  So only that much of a web site gets italicized (For example, or Writing Simplified). Anything after the first extension is a sub page on the web site, and gets placed inside of quotation marks (For example, the “About Me” section of my blog or any one of the titles of my individual blog posts). 

Even this trick for remembering how to punctuate titles breaks down, though.  You can buy singles of songs and there are entire works of fiction put online for free all the time.  Taken in conjunction with the “big things/little things” technique, the “Can you buy it?” trick should help you get through punctuating at least 98% of every title you’ll encounter successfully. 

For the other 2% of titles you encounter and don’t know what to do with, well, that’s what I’m here for.  Use your professor! Don’t feel embarrassed about asking when you’re unsure about how to do something.  Chances are, your teacher won’t know the answer off the top of his/her head either and will learn something in the process of looking it up for you. 

Names of Forms, Games, Restaurants, Etc.

Style guides like those published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are great sources to turn to when you need to know how to punctuate something properly for a paper. But if you’re not writing an academic paper or your writing includes topics that aren’t typically found in professional publications, they won’t provide you with the answers you need. For those issues, you have to rely on your own judgment in applying the rules because an official standard hasn’t been set.

  • Names of Forms: It’s rare for someone to cite a blank document (i.e., an unfilled-out form) so examples of this in published peer-reviewed literature are scarce. However, webpages and print documents refer to form titles when indicating that such and such a form needs to be filled out, or explaining the purpose of certain forms. Every single instance that I've seen so far simply capitalizes the first letter of each word in the form title. For example: "Fill out the Motor Vehicle Records Form to request information about a particular vehicle involved in an accident," "If you are employed in the US, you must fill out a W-4 Form," and "Make sure to fill out all shaded areas in Form I-765." Also notice that the word “Form” is in every name.
  • Names of Restaurants: I still remember when it was natural to go to a bookstore to pick up a restaurant guide.  Nowadays, you turn to the Internet for restaurant reviews and suggestions, so finding a print standard for how to punctuate the title is difficult.  As far as the online standard goes, you have the choice to either 1) capitalize the first letter of each word in the restaurant’s name or 2) italicize (or underline!) the restaurant’s name.  You would never put the name in quotation marks, though. As the restaurant is the “big” thing that includes “smaller” things like menu choices, you would put the names of dishes in quotation marks, unless it’s a general food item that’s well known. For example, “Have you been to Chili’s? I love their chicken parmesan,” or “I’ll see you at Hula Hut. Don’t forget to order me the ‘Funky Dunky Onion Strings’.” Both examples show acceptable ways to punctuate.
  • Names of Games: Since the games themselves are the "big" thing that include smaller components, I would italicize their titles.  For example, Magic: the Gathering is a card game similar in playing style to Pokemon Trading Card Game.  I did run a quick search through a research database to see how peer-reviewed journal articles treat game titles as games are a popular topic of education-related journals. The articles I found only capitalized the first letter of each word in the game's name without italicizing or underlining it.  However, no article ever placed the game's name inside quotation marks.  With that evidence, I'd say it's a matter of personal preference whether to italicize the name or leave it unembellished.  I personally prefer the italics since it's what the rule would call for.
  • Etc.: Use your personal judgment in applying the rules or drop me a line (in a comment or an e-mail). I’ll update this list with more troublesome title issues as I’m made aware of them.

A Note About Underlining Titles

Before the advent of computers and word-processing programs, there were only two options available to you when punctuating a title: underlining or quotation marks. When computers starting to become more commonplace, a third option - italicization - was added as an alternative to underlining.

Underlining titles was viewed as necessary only when handwriting titles because it is difficult to italicize one's own handwriting - especially if you're writing in cursive. Many style manuals now omit underlining as an option, stating that computers are accessible to the majority of people living in today's society and underlining is no longer needed.

However, there ARE a couple of situations that still exist where italics is either not supported or redundant:

  • Social Media: Some social applications online (e.g., Facebook) do not support embedded HTML code, which means when adding comments you do not have the option of italicizing your font.
  • Italicized Fonts: If you enjoy using fonts other than the default Times New Roman or Calibri, you may run across lovely fonts that mimic cursive handwriting. Although it is possible to italicize those fonts even more, the difference between regular and italicized versions of the font is often imperceptible and could confuse your reader.

When you find yourself in a situation where italicizing your font is simply not an option, surround the words you want underlined with underline dashes (Shift + the dash key).  For example, I am reworking my father’s book _Dan, A Man Without Youth_ while concurrently working on my own book, tentatively titled _Online Tools for Writers_.

Good luck with your writing endeavors! If you have any questions about how to go about punctuating titles or getting around the character limitations of online programs, send them my way and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Photo credit: Lutrus