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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


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