Punctuating speech: How should it work?

A while ago, I was the head copy editor for a brilliant videogames website called Big Boss Battle. As far as I recall, it was the first time we’d had one and it was also the first time I’d edited anything other than my own work (unless you count proof-reading other people’s assignments throughout education). That meant delving into the nitty-gritty of subjects I thought weren’t even that contraversial: title case versus sentence case; how to capitalise games with names in all-caps; which style of quotes to use; and abbreviating the word ‘versus’, to name a few. I’ve probably forgotten some of the weirdest points.

While I may not be in that role anymore (they started writing too much for me to keep up with, which no one’s complaining at), I still get to edit my own work and that of others every now and then. In editing fiction, I came across a common mistake that I never really thought would be as common as it was: punctuating speech.

Since it seems so common, I thought I’d help out by putting the rules in simple terms right here:

Double or single quotes?

I actually got into the start of an argument on Twitter over this, once. (I admit to judging I’d never be able to make a point anyone would listen to and backing out with my hands in the air, more than a little exasperated.) There were a lot of people professing absolute belief in their way of doing it just because ‘they’d always done it that way’ or ‘been taught to do it that way’. Speaking as a software developer, the first statement makes me scream internally. Speaking as someone who refused for a long while to believe their secondary school teacher because their primary school teacher had taught them to put apostrophes in the wrong usages of ‘it’s/its’*, the latter is either heavily reliant on memory or a poor excuse.

The internet exists. Every time someone says something like they did in that Twitter thread, I get all paranoid and have to look it up all over again.

The simple choice

If you’re using British English, you would use the following:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”,’ said Bob, folding his arms over the word ‘sourpuss’ stitched into his shirt as if he was covering it in defence.

If you’re using US English, all you do is exchange double for single:

“According to her, I’m ‘a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar’,” said Bob, folding his arms over the word “sourpuss” stitched into his shirt as if he was covering it in defence.

This varies depending on the publisher/style guide, though. Some British presses use the American style, and maybe the same happens in reverse. If you’re editing your own work, it comes down to personal preference. For the rest of this guide, I’ll be using the British style.

You can think of the use of quote/speech marks in terms of how many layers separate them from the voice of narration. Something the narrator wants to quote is one level away from the narration. If whatever the narrator quotes includes a quote itself, that’s two levels away from the narration. With the British variant, you can equate one quote mark to each level, so level one becomes single quotes and level two becomes double quotes.

Quoted speech

In the above example,

…folding his arms over the word ‘sourpuss’…

is an example of quoted text. We’re quoting the word ‘sourpuss’ on Bob’s t-shirt. Since it’s one level removed from the narration, we give it a single quote.

Direct speech

‘According to her…’ said Bob

is an example of direct speech. Again, it’s one level removed from the narration, so we use single quotes.

Quoted speech in direct speech

‘…I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”,’

is an example of speech quoted within direct speech. Since this is now two levels removed from the narration, we use double quotes.

I was taught the American version, but had quotes and speech mixed up. I was thinking of it in terms of separation from speech, not from the text. For me, double quotes indicated direct speech, actively being spoken by a character on the page. Something quoted within the narration was less direct, like second-hand speech, so I gave it single quotes. If you were really using the American style, you’d use double quotes for both situations. My reasoning made perfect sense to me and for a while I was quite adamant that it had to be the right way, but it wasn’t.

The important part to remember is the levels. It doesn’t matter which style you use, just keep the rules in mind and stay consistent.

Speech tags

You may have noticed we used ‘said’ in the previous example. (Or you may not – it’s one of those invisible words you tend to skip over when reading.) That’s a speech tag, and it’s honestly the reason I’m writing this guide in the first place. The punctuation around speech tags is where I was seeing all of the errors when editing.

Tags at the end of speech

Let’s start by looking at Bob again:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”,’ said Bob.

When pairing speech with a speech tag (some kind of verb attached to a character that indicates they’re saying it), it’s important to consider them part of the same sentence. After all, ‘said Bob’ doesn’t work on its own. What’s Bob saying? The speech before that constitutes the action he’s carrying out.

If we had:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”.’ said Bob.

That would be wrong on two counts: first, there’s a lost speech tag in ‘said’, meaning it’s not connected to its action; second, ‘said’ is uncapitalised, despite closing the previous sentence in the speech. It doesn’t matter if it’s in speech marks or not, if you use a full stop, your next words have to be part of a new sentence.

If instead we had:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”.’ Said Bob.

This would also be wrong for the same reasons as the first point above. Bob said what?

There are, of course, situations where using a full stop to finish speech is fine. This is where you use something other than a speech tag afterwards, like stage directions:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”.’ Bob folded his arms over his chest.

The above is fine, as the second sentence works perfectly well on its own and doesn’t leave an unpaired verb lounging about.

Also note that the full stop or comma (whichever you decide to use) falls outside of the quoted text’s double quotes. This is a matter of style.

Tags in the middle of speech

What about when you want to break things up a little and have a tag in the middle of the text? All of the following examples are correct:

‘According to her, I’m “a bad influence, a misanthrope and a terrible liar”.’ He folded his arms over his chest. ‘I don’t see why she hates me so much.’

‘Really?’ said Cassie. ‘You really have no idea?’

Bob frowned. ‘Well I thought about it,’ he said, ‘and I couldn’t think of anything.’

All we’re doing here is applying the same rules again. ‘He folded his arms over his chest’ makes its own sentence, capitalised and with a full stop at the end. A full stop precedes it at the end of the previous speech and if the first word of the next sentence weren’t ‘I’, it would still be capitalised. All the sentences work on their own.

In the second paragraph, with Cassie speaking, we have ‘said’ in lower case. This is despite the question mark. In this case, the question mark doesn’t end the sentence and the tag is still considered part of it, so the tag doesn’t get capitalised. (As a side note, I’ve been a big fan of mid-sentence question marks and exclamation marks ever since seeing them in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel, but sadly they’re not common anymore – which is a shame, as they’re so useful.)

In the third paragraph, Bob’s speech tag falls right in the middle of a spoken sentence, so we still treat it as such. We get commas either side and both ‘he’ and ‘and’ are lower case to indicate the sentence continues.

Speech over multiple paragraphs

I once bought a fantasy book on Kindle (I won’t name names) that had a really gripping plot, but frequently delved into monologues… and got the punctuation completely wrong. If you’d looked at my face as I read through the rest of it, you would have seen me wincing the whole time. I had to go back and re-read so many paragraphs because I wasn’t quite sure who was meant to be talking. Speech marks are important. If I hadn’t been so reluctant to put the book down after reading that far in, I might have dropped it.

Cassie took a deep breath before replying, ‘You put her cat in the tumble dryer, Bob. You were drunk, sure, but you picked up the cat, you stuck it in the drum and you shut the door. Just because you don’t remember it doesn’t mean you didn’t do it, doesn’t mean you’re not responsible. And just because you were too drunk to turn the machine on doesn’t mean the cat could get out. I’ve no idea how long it was in there, but apparently it was quite distressed when she found it.

‘So yeah, she’s angry at you. Hates you? Maybe. You’ll have to ask her.’

It may seem tiny, but the important point here is the lack of a speech mark at the end of the first paragraph. Because the speech continues with the same person talking, we need a way to indicate that continuation. So we miss out the final quote to leave the speech ‘open’. But because we still need to know the next sentence is speech, it keeps its quote. If the second paragraph started with another tag or anything that wasn’t direct speech, this wouldn’t be the case. We’d use the closing quote.

The book I read always put the closing quote in. When both monologues and conversations went on for pages, it was very difficult to tell speakers apart. You had to go back, tally up the paragraphs and hope it all added up at the end.

When to go to the next line

On the subject of multiple paragraphs and multiple speakers, when should speech move over onto a new line? There are three scenarios:

  1. The current paragraph is getting too long.
  2. Someone else is about to speak.
  3. You have already written a significant chunk of action in the current paragraph.

When to break speech that continues in the next paragraph with the same speaker is really up to you. It depends on what will flow better and where a natural break might fall.

Speech has to go on a new line whenever someone else speaks, though. It’s how you make it clear and easy to read.

The third point is more of a recommendation than a rule. If you have six lines of narration with some direct speech at the end of the paragraph, it gets a bit lost in the rest of the text. It might be better to put it on a new line on its own for added clarity.

And that’s all punctuation is about, really: clarity. The punctuation rules surrounding speech are there to make it clear to the reader who is saying what. Deviating from it can make things very confusing, forcing readers to go back over paragraphs they’ve already read to work out what just happened, taking them out of the story. So if you take anything away from this, just take the two ideas: apply single or double quotes based on how far removed the quote is from the rest of the text; and consider speech with its tag as part of the same sentence, with the punctuation to match.

If I’ve missed anything out from this, please let me know in the comments!

* According to me, but it’s likely I’d misunderstood.

Further reading




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *