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.