Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence

Whereas everyone is welcome to write without a clue—you do have a computer, after all—unless you start with a strong foundation and build from there, your lack of understanding is going to cost you.

Recently a student of mine expressed strong irritation when I suggested she learn to punctuate. Yes, I really am that annoying person. Well, the next time I went through her writing, I restrained myself from spending the time and effort on such minor matters as how her sentences were put together. I should simply presume people will be happy to pay for an edit rather than learn some of the basics of writing.

I thought I might start here with the sentence, really for a reason that has to do with punctuating dialogue—the issue on my mind right now. Why? Because while line editing, I’ve found so many examples of a certain glitch that boils down to a mere misunderstanding of what a sentence is. Now, straightaway to it. (Of course this isn’t a complete sentence, but that’s beside the point…)

Here we go—and please approach this believing that comprehension will be easy and you’re sure to grasp what I’m saying:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest. She wasn’t sure that Jake would take her seriously.

Okay, that’s part one of the mistake I’m discussing. The question is, where does that second sentence end? With a comma, we indicate a sentence will go on. Therefore, what is the punctuation here saying? It’s saying that the sentence is:

Not just my future, but your future too, Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Does that look like a sentence to you? It’s not a sentence—it’s a mess. The hero of our story is the editor, who rushes in and places a period at the actual end of the sentence:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too PERIOD” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

AHA! Now we have packaged the actual sentences separately. And that’s why we don’t use a comma with actions or explanations after the dialogue. We do not by kneejerk put a comma before the end-quote mark. Because we don’t know yet if the sentence has ended. Maybe yes, maybe no.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora said PERIOD She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.
How simple is that? We have to know where the sentence ends. At the end of the sentence, we place a period. Otherwise, we’re continuing on.

Here’s part two of the glitch.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too.” Nora said. She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Thus the person who thinks the sentence is simply ended before the “Nora said” creates a separate sentence where none is wanted. This individual doesn’t realize that the quoted dialogue flows on to the attribution.

I’m not saying that this individual is you—probably not, and you probably stopped reading when you saw where I was going with this. Oh, well. But maybe I’ve worked off a little steam.

The error—this set of errors—is extremely common. I just edited a 500-page novel in which the author avoided the mistake perhaps three or four times. Don’t be that person.

Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you’d like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer’s Digest: Upcoming are Fundamentals of Fiction, Writing the Mystery, and 12 Weeks to a First Draft. Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Send a comment here.

Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence

THE NAKED WRITER: More About Paragraphs

I posted a piece earlier last year that gave some good reasons for and advice on breaking paragraphs, but I see I missed something important. Recently, I reviewed a couple of posted assignments by students and a novel from an editing client that showed the same pattern in each.

Let me give an example.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie. Beanie just wanted to try to help.

“I’m not moving until I talk some sense into you,” Beanie told him.

What’s the problem? The writer needs to let Beanie have her own paragraph—give the girl some privacy. So the paragraphing here would change if we followed some logic.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

Beanie just wanted to try to help. “I’m not moving until I talk some sense into you,” she told him.

Paragraphing is a way of sensibly structuring your writing. What is more reasonable—having information about the speaker in her own paragraph, or using her information in a paragraph about someone else? Yes, package the information next to her speech, not next to his.

My other observation of what people do is related.

What I also see is that people like to break paragraphs for no reason if dialogue is involved.

To give you an example.

Joel was never the calmest of men.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

Why separate commentary from the dialogue as if the dialogue needs a paragraph all to itself. It doesn’t. A paragraph with narration can certainly tolerate some accompanying dialogue.

Joel was never the calmest of men. “Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

If you can, scroll down and see my original post on paragraphing. But I’ll summarize the main point here. One reason we break paragraphs is to put more white space on the page and make the page look more readable. Of course we break at appropriate spots, but break we must or the page will seem grey and intimidating.

Now the point in this post in front of you now is that you need to group the sentences in your paragraph according to logic and why you might not need a paragraph break just because you have a piece of dialogue.

Come take one of my classes at Writer’s Digest and learn more—and download my style guide, The Naked Writer, at Amazon. I’m an award-winning writer—I won an award for my Writing the Mystery (take a mystery writing class with me) and I won an Edgar for a short story of mine. I have a mystery writing class coming up as well as 12 Weeks to a First Draft (both online with a couple more coming at Writer’s Digest University). Oh, next up is Showing vs. Telling, starting on 8/3/2017.

THE NAKED WRITER: More About Paragraphs

The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

My students, bless them, are my source of writing goofs. They very much want to write—so how did they wind up making this many mistakes? Well, not every one of them makes the same mistakes, but a lot of them make particular ones… I think (a) they sleep-walked through some of their high school classes, and/or (b) their teachers, not knowing any better themselves, didn’t instruct them properly.

I believe the second is what happened to me. And I actually worked as a writer and editor for many years before learning certain style standards. Yes. I think teaching at all levels is hit and miss, and when language and punctuation rules are missed, our common culture ends up with a mishmash in books and publications.

The one advantage I had in grade school was that we learned to diagram sentences. That was a big plus. But a big minus was a lack of training in mechanics. Mechanics means all those (mostly) mechanical actions we take such as putting a period at the end of a sentence or punctuating dialogue.

Mechanics, though mostly mechanical, can still leave a certain amount of room for decision, and not all decision guidelines in regard to mechanics and style are that clear. They require a knowledge base, but also a logical putting of two and two together as well as an educated ear for how punctuation and other elements sound on the page.

So if some editor—maybe me—has perhaps marked up your manuscript, don’t feel inadequate. Writing is an art form like any other, and we always have to be in the process of upgrading our skills. Just go right ahead and upgrade.

The particular subject I had in mind today was, as I say in the title, the question of job roles and relationship roles. The difficulty many students and clients encounter is that they don’t know which job titles and relationship titles to capitalize. The answer is actually a simple one, but even then isn’t always followed.

In reading an article in a major magazine, I was appalled by a certain set of errors. And I hadn’t too long before read a piece by the copy editor at that publication telling how carefully she applies the rules. Well, if this editor was applying house style, the style for the publication is an odd one.

The magazine piece I’m referring to capitalized both President and Presidential. The commonly accepted rule, however, is that we don’t capitalize job roles. We would say: “The president gave a speech tonight. Though he may sometimes try to sound presidential, this evening he was off the mark.”

We don’t capitalize “president,” unless the word is used as part of a name or as a name. Here’s an example:
Hoover, elected president in 1928, later presided over the country’s deepest-ever economic depression. Though painted as cruel and uncaring, President Hoover made efforts to aid business, farming, and the unemployed.

Naturally, if this is the case for “president,” the same rule applies to other offices, from generals to justices of the Supreme Court.

“Excuse me, General, but you’re wanted at the White House.” The colonel was happy to see the general go.

John Jay served as chief justice of the Supreme Court until he was elected governor of New York and then resigned from the court. Chief Justice John Marshall died in office.

Similarly, relationship roles aren’t capitalized unless they’re part of a name or used as a name.

I asked Mother not to come to my graduation as the event would be tiring for her. I told the guys in advance that my mother wasn’t coming, but that I’d asked Uncle Steven, who would enjoy going to lunch with us. He was my favorite uncle and a very cool guy.

I think that’s clear and easy to follow, but for questions, email me: Or download the Kindle version of my style and composition guide, The Naked Writer at Amazon.

Or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

The Naked Writer

One Mother, One Father, One Sister, One Brother

No, this isn’t a religious piece or about family matters. This is about a certain comma…

That is, when we write:

My mother, Suzanne,


My husband, George,

we need commas.

Why? Well, generally, we have only one mother or one husband. Though, of course, this particular person might have more than one mother or one husband, for some reason having to do with social mores or… I can’t guess.

But when we have one of someone named in a relationship, we need a pair of commas.

That is:

My mother, Suzanne, cooked roast beef last night.


My husband, George, went bowling with the guys.

The same would be true of any relationship, and not just family relationships.

My boss, Steven, asked me to redo the report.

If, however, we have more than one of same—no commas.

My brother Eddie took the kids for a walk.

But if Eddie is special:

My oldest brother, Eddie, took the kids for a walk.

Definitely we don’t use a comma if we have more than one of a type.

My friend Argone returned to his home country.

Or, again, if the person (or whatever) is noted as special, yes, commas:

My Turkish friend, Argone, returned to Turkey.


My brown and white cat, Frieda, has been fighting with my other cats.

What if we don’t know how many others might be around?

Larry’s brother, James, went with him to the circus. I don’t know if Larry has other siblings, but James is the only one Larry has mentioned.

Just another reason we use commas—a rule that puzzles many people.

If you’re confused about this or other comma rules, you can download my style guide, The Naked Writer, at Amazon for your Kindle.

Or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

Or see how I punctuate in one of my novels, such as Question Woman & Howling Sky or Strings (a middle grade fantasy adventure) or The Heroine’s Journey (a young adult fantasy).


The Naked Writer

The Naked Writer

Comma for Direct Address

“Thank you Miki,” my students often write. You’d think I’d be gratified. But no, I’m not. I’m in turmoil. Where is that comma for direct address? Where did these people go to school? Why, now, as adults, don’t they know that a comma is always used for direct address? Why isn’t the comma as automatic as that thank you?

Please, dear students, write, “Thank you, Miki.” Ah. I like the thank you but if they don’t use the comma for direct address, the lack of a comma makes me wonder what else they’re doing while my back is turned.

Could they be writing, “Joe glared at his mother. ‘Mom please don’t tell Iris you spoke to me”  when they should be writing “Mom COMMA FOR DIRECT ADDRESS…” If I’ve told that student once, I’ve told him ten times or more.

Which brings a second complaint of mine to mind. Why is the student not paying attention? As I said to my friend who teaches a martial art, “We need to have classes somewhere in how to learn.”

Most, really most, students don’t appear to want to absorb correction, and most, really most, have the patience of gnats: That assignment didn’t go well, so I guess this writing thing isn’t for me.

Oh well… But try the comma for direct address, students. Really, I mean it.


All the uses of the comma are explained in The Naked Writer, my style and composition guide from Curiosity Quills, which you can download at Amazon.

And to see commas in action, buy a hard copy or download Question Woman & Howling Sky from Portals Publishing at Amazon.

Or if you want me to chide you personally for your comma use, take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

The Naked Writer

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.