The Top 20 Grammar Errors: Quotations

Error number twenty-two concerns quotation marks in our list of the top twenty grammar errors.

Dialogue is inherently a different beast in fiction than in any other writing style, and I cannot stress enough that this list of the twenty most common grammar errors along with Anderson’s five grammar errors has been culled from collegiate academic papers and essays and research papers written at the high school level. And, over the winter break from university this academic year, I’m planning a blog series on the new rules for dialogue in fiction.

And trust me, as much as the rules and guidelines for dialogue have changed, they have pretty much remained the same as well. That being the case, it’s vital for a writer to understand the constructs that surround quotation marks: that is—how to implement the punctuation correctly.

The correct usage of quotation marks within dialogue, how dialogue is formatted on the page, the punctuation that is unique to dialogue—all of that must be mastered to be able to veer from the course. The veering from the course will be covered in December. Stay tuned. Right now, we’re going to examine the basics.
The first rule is that every time you have a new speaker, you begin a new paragraph. Let’s look at a passage from Death of Day, the third story in my Wastelandseries.

She took him to the temporary storage building.
“How safe is this?” the rep asked, pointing at the yellow steel drums behind a four-inch plate glass window.
“Well,” said Lil’, “moisture is always a factor. It could react with the materials inside and produce various gases.”
“What kind of gasses?”
She stared through the glass into the holding room. The steel drums sat quietly in a corner in a room without movement. “Bad gasses,” she said.
“What do you mean by bad?”
“Well, the gases should probably never ignite.”
“What would happen if they did?”
Lil’ looked at the floor and scratched the back of her neck. She didn’t say anything, and Lil’ thought the state rep looked pissed.
“What kind of time frame are we looking at in getting all of this done? Because we need to hurry this process.”
“A lot of the procedures we’ve had to come up with ourselves,” she said. “And you guys have started shipping waste from other facilities here.” She shook her head. “What kind of question is that?”
“Ms. Philemon, this facility needs to be totally shut down.”
“That would be my job. Yes.”
The rep crossed his arms. “So then, how long?”
“Maybe a year. If—”
“If what? I don’t like if’s. I’m getting a lot of pressure from above. This needs done.”
Lil’ glanced at the steel drums. “Pressure,” she half-whispered, half-breathed. She wasn’t sure she could remain silent any longer. Wasn’t sure if she could give him the answer he wanted. Wasn’t sure if he could handle the answer he needed. “Maybe a year if you stop sending me additional waste.”
He shook his head. “That’s unacceptable. Way too long. This reactor site has been sitting here since 1984. It needs to go.”

 

Notice each time the state rep speaks and each time Lil’ speaks. Whenever the dialogue switches speakers, we have a new paragraph.

Now, let’s take a look at the punctuation inside the quotation marks.


“Bad gasses,” she said.

 

Here, you have a complete thought within the quotation marks. Well, okay, it’s a fragment because there is no verb, but assuming it was a complete independent clause or sentence, without the quotation marks, instead of the comma, we should have a period.

But we don’t because the sentence does not end after the closing quotation mark. It ends after the dialogue tag she said.

The rule is, if you have a statement within quotation marks, and you have a dialogue tag after the quotation, instead of a period, use a comma before the closing quotation mark.

If, however, the quotation does not have a tag at the end of the entire sentence, place the period inside the quotation mark.

 
“Well, the gases should probably never ignite.

 
Okay, so that part is pretty straightforward, but what if you have a different ending punctuation mark within the quotation other than a period? Say an exclamation point or a question mark, what happens then?

“How safe is this?” the rep asked, pointing at the yellow steel drums behind a four-inch plate glass window.

You use the question mark or the exclamation point. You only ever use the comma construction with the period.

Sometimes, you may want to break the quote up.

“Well,” said Lil’,“moisture is always a factor. It could react with the materials inside and produce various gases.”

In the example, the quote is broken by the dialogue tag said Lil’, and the quote is a complete sentence—the introductory clause within the first set of quotation marks, and the rest of the statement in the second set of the statement. Notice the comma after well and before the closing quotation mark. Also notice that the dialogue tag ends with a comma. This is always the case unless the first quote set is a separate sentence from the second quote set.

“A lot of the procedures we’ve had to come up with ourselves,” she said. “And you guys have started shipping waste from other facilities here. 

The first quote looks totally like our first example: 

“Bad gasses,” she said.

The second portion of the quote looks totally like our second example:

“Well, the gases should probably never ignite.

Simple, right? What happens when you place the dialogue tag at the beginning of the quotation though? For the most part, you flip the comma usage. 

She said, “Bad gasses.

Notice also that the portion of the sentence inside the quotation marks begins with a capitalized word. However, my favorite construction for a dialogue tag in front of a quotation utilizes an action:

The rep crossed his arms.“So then, how long?”

 
Because the action is a complete idea, a complete sentence on its own, there is no comma between the tag and the quotation. Instead, we end with a strong period and begin a brand new sentence with the opening quotation mark.

I’m hoping I explained this well enough. Dialogue in conjunction with its punctuation constructs is a tough subject for many writers. The subject is difficult to explain as well. If this is a problem area of yours, please do not hesitate to ask me your questions or voice your concerns.

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