Author Susan Kroupa has several good questions about her almost-done novel in progress. All of them are about punctuating dialogue, which presents some challenges not generally encountered in straight narrative. (The novel is the fourth in Susan’s Doodlebugged mystery series, about the adventures of Doodle, a bedbug-hunting Labradoodle; Molly, his 10-year-old human cohort; and Josh Hunter, Molly’s father, who needs all the patience he can get. A must for dog-loving mystery readers and mystery-loving dog people!)
Where to put the period?
She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer”. Or a “charmer.”
My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’.”
Or “. . . and a dog.'”
This is a point where American English (AmE) differs from British English (BrE). In AmE, periods and commas nearly always go inside the close quotation marks, both single and double. Even when the element enclosed in quotes is something less than a complete sentence. So:
She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer.”
Same deal with the “My dad” sentence. Notice, however, that this sentence is missing something. See it?
My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog.'”
Single quote marks are used for quotations within quotations. (BrE does the opposite: the primary quotation is set off with single quote marks, the quotation within with doubles.) The period is followed by both a close single quote and a close double quote. This means that somewhere in the preceding copy there should be both an open double quote and an open single quote. This sentence has an open single quote mark — but no open double. This sentence has been lifted from its context, so the missing open double quote mark is probably in an earlier sentence, but I’m going to ask Susan to check to make sure.
By the way — if I were copyediting, I’d suggest losing the quote marks around “charmer.” They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t necessary either. They do come in handy with distinctive phrases. If Miguel habitually called this type of person a “two-faced charmer,” I’d keep the quotes.
With the stronger terminal punctuation marks, question marks and exclamation points, placement is a little more complicated. Does the question mark or exclamation point go with the quoted bit? If so, it goes inside the close quote. If not, it goes outside. Here’s a variation on Susan’s first sentence:
Would Miguel call her a “charmer”?
The question mark applies to the whole sentence, not just “charmer,” so it goes outside the quote marks. Here’s an example of the opposite:
As a child she was taught to greet grownups with “How do you do?”
The whole sentence isn’t a question, but the quoted bit — “How do you do?” — is. So here the question mark goes inside the close quote.
Exclamation points work the same way. Imagine that the dad in Susan’s second sentence has been accused of being “just some guy with a business license and a dog.” He might reply, “I am not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’!” The exclamation point goes inside the double close quotes because the whole reply is an exclamation. (He’s a little miffed at the suggestion.) But it goes outside the single close quote because that quoted bit isn’t an exclamation.
How to write stuff the way people say it
“Find it on our website, states of affairs slash low down news dot com.”
Or add dashes between the words? This is being heard over the radio.
In writing it’s a no-brainer: the URL is statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com. Actually that doesn’t look quite right to me — did I say I’ve been learning Dreamweaver in my spare time? lowdownnews.statesofaffairs.com would be more like it, or lowdownnews.com/statesofaffairs, or statesofaffairs.com/lowdownnews. The domain name comes first, and the folders follow the slash.
But I digress. The challenge is to translate something written into something oral, using the written word to do it. Writers and editors have various opinions on this. Some think that numbers should always be spelled out in dialogue because we can’t pronounce numbers. And some numbers, notably those dealing with money and time, can be pronounced in different ways. How does a character pronounce “10:45”? “Ten forty-five” or “quarter to eleven” or “a quarter of eleven”? How does he say he’s got $6.35 in his pocket? “Six thirty-five” or “six dollars thirty-five” or “six bucks and thirty-five cents”? If you hear a character saying it a certain way, by all means spell it out. That way your readers will be more likely to hear it the same way.
But suppose my character says, “My dog was born in twenty-oh-eight.” I don’t know about you, but I have to look twice at that to realize it’s a year. I had the same problem with “states of affairs slash low down news dot com”: It didn’t say “URL” to me till I’d screeched to a halt and gone “Huh?” Verisimilitude is nice, but not if it makes things unnecessarily hard for the reader. So my character would say “My dog was born in 2008” and Susan’s newscaster would say “Find it on our website, statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com” — after checking to make sure that the bogus URL has the syntax of a real one.
I use dashes a lot and am uncertain whether this structure for quotes and dashes is correct:
“Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”
Dashes are a handy way to work body language, intonation, or thoughts into dialogue. Both dashes can go inside the quotation marks or both dashes can go outside. This sample has one inside and one outside. One of them needs to be moved — but which one? Depends on how Susan hears the dialogue, and how she wants her readers to hear it.
#1: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye “—and with you.”
#2: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public”—she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”
What’s the difference? In #1, the dash inside the quotation marks suggests that there’s a pause in the speaking. In #2, the speech itself isn’t interrupted, so she’s meeting her son’s eye (or “eyes”?) while she’s speaking.
Note that in conventional AmE typography the em dash is usually set solid (i.e., without extra space) to whatever precedes and follows it. Hence there’s no space around “she meets her son’s eye” in #2 but there is in #1.
Also note that if you’re using “smart” or curly quotes, dashes often fool automated typesetting systems into making the quote marks go in the wrong direction: the system thinks that a quote mark following a dash has to be a close quote, but as you can see in #2, this often isn’t true.
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3 thoughts on “Editing Workshop, 1”
Susanna, this is simply wonderful! So much good information! I think the reason I’ve been confused about where quotes go with periods is because I’d seen them done with question marks and exclamations the way you described, and never considered the rule might be different for periods.
You’re right, too, that I got the domain name in the wrong order. And absolutely right about not making things more difficult for the reader with being TOO accurate in representing human speech.
And, on the smart quote glitch–too true! I didn’t realize that with the last book and had, oh, about 60 errors that had to be corrected in the proof–all the quotes facing the wrong direction!
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!
Thanks for asking the questions! Plenty of writers have trouble with this stuff, and copyeditors spend a fair amount of time discussing how to punctuate bits of dialogue. And don’t talk to me about backwards smart quotes . . . I usually have Word set to use “straight” quotes. That’s been my preference, and one of my publisher clients requires it. But when PDFs were made from the Word file for my Mud of the Place, most of the quotes that came before dashes were wrong. To make it more fun, in the font used for the book you had to have really sharp eyes to tell the open quotes from the close quotes. About 2/3 of the proofreading catches involved those damn critters. Now I convert to smart quotes before I do a last pass through the ms.
Yeah, the problem I had was that with the last book was doing the straight quote/smart quote change too late.
I’ve printed this out for future reference. Extremely helpful. I sent it to my first reader, a mystery writer who’s no slouch herself in the editing department, and she called you “terrific” and “clear.”
(Note where I placed the final quote! ) 🙂