The Naked Writer

Basic Punctuation for Dialogue/Quotes


I met a mechanical engineer who teaches at Columbia University. I said I’d been reading a lot about Isaac Newton.

“Ah, Newton—80 percent genius and 20 percent nut.” He said.

(Let me quickly insert the correct punctuation: “Ah, Newton—80 percent genius and 20 percent nut,” he said.)

What drives me crazy here is not that my neighbor doesn’t understand where Newton was coming from—few do—but that type of dialogue or quote punctuation.

While on this occasion I’m the one who mispunctuated—because I wanted to make a point—I see this sort of punctuation all the time.

Let me first explain that the “he said” is part of the same sentence accusing Newton of being something of a nut. Now, I’ll return to my premise (see my other blog pieces below) that if you read the writing out loud, you’ll understand why we don’t come to a full stop between one part of the sentence and the next. Well, you’ll understand the thesis should you know how punctuation “reads.” A period represents a full stop, and a comma represents a fairly short pause.

If you appreciate how long we halt when we have a period, as opposed to how long we rest when we have a comma, and you can read the above sentence out loud to yourself, you’ll grasp that the “he said” is part of the quote (or bit of dialogue if you’re writing fiction), and you’ll know why we use a comma with a word of citation instead of a period. (This last sentence is long, but not what’s considered a run-on. You ought to be able to read this easily while breathing sufficiently because of the punctuation.)

This may also lead you to understand why we don’t use a comma in front of verbs—or other peculiar sorts of marks here and there.

“Ah, Newton, 80 percent genius and 20 percent nut,” he looked around for a way to escape the conversation.

(The correct punctuation: “Ah, Newton, 80 percent genius and 20 percent nut.” He looked around for a way to escape the conversation.)

Read that out loud as well and you’ll easily hear that “he looked around for a way to escape the conversation” is not a part of the main sentence. Thus, we need a full stop.

Most of you don’t make this mistake, of course, but enough of you do that I felt ought to help out you (common variety of) error-makers.

For lots further help, see my ebook The Naked Writer for the Kindle. Allegedly, the print version will come out before… Hmm, what comes next? The national conventions? The elections? Terrorists on the watch list denied the right to buy guns?

Or you can take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University—I have many classes coming up.

Or read in print or ebook, or listen to, Question Woman & Howling Sky. That might not help you with your own writing, but at least the book should entertain.



The Naked Writer


The Cruel Comma Splice

The comma splice is perhaps a tad bit cruel because this error will make you look a little not so smart. (I couldn’t use a cruel word here.)

Here’s a comma splice: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

What you might write instead:

  •  I was going to eat dinner. Joe insisted on joining me.
  •  I was going to eat dinner; Joe insisted on joining me.
  •  I was going to eat dinner, and Joe insisted on joining me.

You understand this easily enough if you comprehend what a sentence is. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know the characteristics of a sentence.

Yet I think most people would grasp what a sentence is if they read their writing back to themselves.

Here’s the comma splice again: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

How would you read that? How would the comma sound in the reading? I don’t know exactly, but to me it’s obvious that the stop—the pause—required by the comma isn’t sufficient for the contents of the combined, new (incorrect) sentence.

I believe that many writing failures are reading failures, that if the writer were a better reader, such a writer would come to realize what a sentence is and how to punctuate.

Now, to go backward and tell you what a comma splice is. A comma splice occurs when only a comma is used to join two independent clauses. What’s an independent clause? An independent clause is a full sentence. A full sentence is a clause that can stand on its own, having both a subject and a verb:

  •  She went.
  •  Birds fly.
  •  Alchemy is said to have been the precursor of chemistry because it had as its (supposed) goal not just the discovery of pure scientific fact, but the creation of something called the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would allow the alchemist to change metals such as copper into gold.

A sentence—an independent clause—can also have dependent clauses, clauses that can’t stand on their own.

Here’s the comma splice once more: I was going to eat dinner, Joe insisted on joining me.

Let’s change the second independent clause to a dependent clause: I was going to eat dinner, but then Joe insisted on joining me.

Obviously, “but then Joe insisted on joining me” isn’t an independent clause—a standalone sentence. That’s evident, isn’t it?

So you have another possibility for changing the comma splice to an acceptable written format.

With so many choices on hand and easily accessible, why would you use a comma splice and make everyone groan?

You wouldn’t unless you wanted to sabotage yourself. Think about it. Can you learn?

If you do want to learn, download a copy of The Naked Writer at or take a class I teach at Writers Digest University.

Next up are : 06/16/2016 – 09/08/2016 12 Weeks to a First Draft and 06/23/2016 – 08/04/2016 Writing the Mystery Novel .

See you there.