Book Talk, Editing, Tips and Tricks

Unpacking CMOS: Dialogue

Originally published on The Scribe Source blog on Sept. 22, 2020.

Whether you’re creating character dialogue or quoting nonfiction, writing speech can be a difficult job to tackle. Should you use double or single quotes? Do you need a comma? Where do you put the ending punctuation?

Luckily, The Chicago Manual of Style is here to help. From the many types of discourse to faltering speech, the CMOS is your go-to guide for written conversation.

Direct, Indirect, and Unspoken Discourse (CMOS 13.39–13.45)

Let’s start with the basics. There are three main types of written speech, and each comes with its own set of grammatical rules. Let’s take a look at the breakdowns. 

Direct Discourse

Direct discourse is used when quoting a source directly or when writing the exact dialogue for a character. Think of this as the lines an actor might deliver in a play or movie. In US grammar, all dialogue is enclosed in double quotation marks, and each new speaker is indicated by a new paragraph.

Consider the following: 

“Have you seen the alien spacecraft above the city?”

“Yeah, who hasn’t?”

Here, when a new character speaks, the dialogue is placed in a new paragraph to clarify that a second person is now talking.

If the speaker continues for more than one paragraph, quotation marks are placed at the beginning of each new paragraph, and ending quotation marks are placed only at the end of the final paragraph, as follows:

“I thought this was an interesting essay topic. It was great to learn more about robotic mice.

“Anyway, what are your lunch plans?”

Indirect Discourse

On the other hand, indirect discourse summarizes the quote or dialogue that would otherwise be in quotation marks. You might think of it as the narrator explaining a conversation. Indirect discourse does not call for quotation marks of any kind.

Compare these two examples:

“We should buy tiny sweaters for our kittens,” Tom said.

Tom suggested we buy tiny sweaters for our kittens.

While the first example quotes exactly what Tom said, the second summarizes the dialogue without quoting it directly. Hence, the second example does not need additional punctuation to show that it’s a quotation.

Unspoken Discourse

Also called interior discourse, unspoken discourse is used for thought, imagined dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness writing—like the voiceover of a character’s thoughts in a movie. Whether or not to use quotation marks corresponds to the writer’s preference. However, the first word of the thought itself is always capitalized.

Take the following example:

I thought, Do kittens like wearing sweaters?

The beginning of the thought is capitalized. Otherwise, it might be difficult to differentiate between the narrator and the character. 

As mentioned earlier, you can choose whether or not to use quotation marks with unspoken discourse. Some writers choose an italic font instead. It’s a good idea, though, to use one or the other, not both. And if you do use italics, make sure you’re not using them at excessive lengths, since this might make it hard to read. 

Single-Word Speech (CMOS 13.40)

Words used by themselves include but are not limited to yes, no, where, how, why, and when. Whether they are enclosed in quotation marks or not depends on if they are part of direct or indirect discourse.

Consider this example:

“Yes,” he said. (direct discourse) He could never say no to her. (indirect discourse)

Faltering Speech or Incomplete Thoughts (CMOS 13.41)

If dialogue trails off or falters due to confusion, insecurity, or other fragmented feelings, an ellipsis is  used to indicate this faltering speech or incomplete thought. Similarly, if part of a text in a direct quote is omitted, an ellipsis is used to indicate this.

If dialogue or a thought is interrupted, then an em dash is used instead of an ellipsis.

Consider these examples:

“I . . . I don’t know what to do . . .” (ellipses)

“I don’t know what to—”

“Well, nothing will be solved by moping.” (em dash)

Common Dialogue Mistakes

While CMOS presents the rules of speech, dialogue, and conversation as clear-cut, the subject can be a little confusing. Here are a few of the most common dialogue mistakes and how to fix them.

Improper Punctuation (CMOS 6.9, CMOS 13.7)

Beginning writers often mistakenly place the period where a comma should be when using dialogue tags. Consider these two versions:

INCORRECT: “Hurry, or we’ll be late for the puppet show.” she said.

CORRECT: “I’m literally the ventriloquist; they can’t start without me,” he said.

Place a period at the end of a sentence of dialogue only if it is the end of the sentence, as so:

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Explain how the puppets keep talking when you take a drink of water.”

As for general punctuation, periods (.) and commas (,) are always placed within quotation marks; exclamation points (!) and question marks (?) are placed within quotation marks if they are part of the dialogue or quotation. Consider these examples:

“I loved that short story!” he said.

I wanted to agree with him, but I hated “Sasquatch versus Loch Ness.”

How could he think this was better than “The Yeti and the Spaceship”?

In the first sentence, the exclamation mark is placed inside the quotations because it is part of the quoted sentence. In the second sentence, the period is placed inside the quotation marks. In the final example, the question mark comes outside the quotation marks, since it’s not part of the quoted material. 

Incorrect Quotation Marks (CMOS 13.30)

In American English, double quotation marks (“) are used; British grammar uses single quotation marks (‘’). If there is dialogue within dialogue, such as one character quoting another, American English uses the single quotation mark (‘) to indicate the change, as so:

“He said, and I quote, ‘The hot dog is my favorite sandwich.’”

Contrast this rule with the British grammar style, which switches the order of the double and single quotation marks. Consider:

‘Then she said, “Are you insane?”’

Dialogue tags can also be tricky. Tags, which alert the reader as to who is speaking, usually come in the form of he/she/they said but can include other verbs to describe speech, such as whispered, shouted, etc.

When the dialogue and the tag are part of the same sentence, the first word of the dialogue tag need not be capitalized unless it begins the sentence. Consider these three examples:

Run!” he said.

“I can’t believe we’re running from these slow-as-molasses zombies,” she muttered.

He said, “Well, you can flee by pogo stick, if you like.”

In the first example, the end mark is an exclamation mark, and it is enclosed within the quotation marks. The second example shows correct comma usage with a dialogue tag. In the third example, the first word of the dialogue tag is capitalized because it is the first word of the sentence, and the first word of the dialogue is capitalized as well.

No matter what troubles you may be facing with written speech, dialogue, or conversation, CMOS is a helpful resource to demystify the topic. You’ll be writing correct dialogue in no time at all!

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