How to Punctuate Dialogue

Diane Callahan
27 min readMay 25, 2022
“How to Punctuate Dialogue” on a black background with a pen

As a fiction editor, I’m often asked about the most common writing mistakes I see. It seems trivial, but incorrectly punctuated dialogue can make readers abandon an otherwise good book.

Luckily, you can master this skill with practice and patience. Here, I’ll cover the difference between dialogue tags and action beats, where to shove your commas, what types of verbs to use, and the various kinds of punctuation that might appear in dialogue.

Dialogue Tags, Action Beats, Punctuation, Verb Choice

I’m using the guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the preferred style guide for fiction publishing in the United States. Keep in mind that these are the US English style conventions, which use double quotation marks for dialogue.

US flag beside “Double quotation marks,” with an excerpt from The Little Prince that uses double quotes

As always, the British play by different rules and often use single quotes, while other cultures use dashes to indicate dialogue instead.

UK flag beside “Single quotation marks,” with an excerpt from The Little Prince that uses single quotes
Dashes used in the Spanish edition of the dialogue for El Principito

Older stories by the likes of Hemingway won’t always follow these guidelines, but these are the rules for twenty-first-century commercial fiction. And some modern authors leave out quotation marks altogether as an artistic choice.

An excerpt from Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” where no quotation marks are used with dialogue

Language is malleable and forever changing.

I’ve also created a short cheat sheet with all these punctuation guidelines so that you have a quick and easy reference.

Commas with Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, also known as speech tags, are the phrases after, before, or in-between spoken words that identify who’s…