Saturday, March 12, 2011

Punctuation with Quotation Marks

This is something that most people have trouble getting the hang of, partly because they're often being corrected wrong. It's confusing, so I'll try to explain as well as I can.

First of all, periods and commas always go inside. That's easy to remember. The only exception to this is if the quotation is going to be followed by a citation, in which case the period goes after the citation. Here are some examples:

Jon said, "I need a cardboard box."
In his article "Your Family History: Getting Started," Boyd K. Packer suggests, "Get a cardboard box" (2003).
Answer the question "yes" or "no."

Question marks and exclamation marks are a little trickier. They go after the quotation mark unless they're actually part of the quotation.

What kind of greeting is "Oh, it's you"?
What kind of greeting is "How are you?"
Jon asked, "What time is it?"
Did Jon say, "It's three o'clock"?
Did Jon ask, "Is it three o'clock?"
Did you see what Jon called a "monkey"?
Jon said, "That's awesome!"
Yay, Jon thinks I'm "awesome"!
Did he say "yes" or "no"?


In fiction writing, probably the most common and most painful mistake I see is bad dialogue. No matter how engaging a book's plot line is, no matter how many grand explosions and close scrapes with death, no matter how funny and clever the book is, the moment the characters start saying things like, "Behold, foul beast, I wield the Magic Sword of Zan'karoth! Prepare to be slain!" or "Well, my friend, perhaps we shall rest until the morrow," I want to drop the book and do something else. Nobody really talks like that. Not even old-fashioned high-born elf princes.

Now, if the character is comic relief and is talking that way on purpose, that, obviously, is a different story.

When you're working on the second draft of your story, read the dialogue out loud. Ask yourself if it sounds like something that someone would really say or if it's just putting distance between the reader and the characters.

One more thing: Be careful of accents. It's great to have characters with different accents in your stories, but if you do too much phonetic spelling of how the accent is supposed to sound, the story becomes difficult to read. In Brian Jacques' Redwall books, I always hated it when the moles showed up. Trying to sound out their annoying accent in my head really slowed down the story. Most of the time, I just skipped over the dialogue and hoped the moles didn't say anything important. "Ho umm burr aye" indeed.