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I'm struggling with when to omit the comma before dialogue (as well as when to use capitals) in fiction writing. My understanding is that you would omit the comma before/after something like "he says" when quoting single words or very short sentences, rather than long clauses.

For example, is it OK to omit the commas in all of the following examples:

  1. I cover the receiver and whisper “sorry” to my friend. Should sorry have a small letter or capital?

  2. He leans forward and whispers, “I’m ready, baby” into my ear. I think a comma is necessary here because the dialogue consists of a subject-verb clause. Is that right?

  3. I resist the urge to shout "screw you, asshole" right to his face. Is it better to have a comma here? Should screw have a capital letter? If so, why?

  4. I turn and mouth "bye" to him. Do I need a comma here or a capital?

  5. I try to shout "stop" again but the words won't come out. Is this okay or do I need a comma and capitals?

  6. I say "stop" but she keeps going.

  7. I feel extremely tempted to say “Just drive” and hope for the best.

I feel like there should be a capital here on Just but am not sure why or if that's even correct. I don't need a comma here, right?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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I think I see what your problem is. According to my handy grammar handbook:

The exact words of a speaker should be set off from the rest of the sentence by using a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point.

Note: If the quotation is a grammatical part of the writer's sentence, the quotation should not be set off by commas, nor should it begin with a capital letter.

~Abeka God's Gift of Language B

So what does this mean? If your quotation is actually the character speaking, it is a direct quotation. You use commas to separate it, and it starts with a capital letter (do note that if the quotation is interrupted and then continued, the continuation does not start with a capital letter).

However, if your quotation is is not a direct quotation - that is, you are describing what was said rather than the character actually saying it - then you do not use commas.

Below I'll correct your examples and explain each one.

I cover the receiver and whisper, “Sorry,” to my friend.

This is a direct quotation, because someone is saying it. Therefore, you use a comma, and it starts with a capital letter. There should also be a comma at the end of the quotation.

He leans forward and whispers, “I’m ready, baby,” into my ear.

This is correct. It is what he is saying, making it a direct quotation. However, you should have a comma after baby, as I added. Because it is the beginning of a direct quotation, it would also begin with a capital (which it does anyway because it starts with 'I')

I resist the urge to shout "screw you, asshole" right to his face.

The quotation is not actually said, meaning it is not a direct quotation. Therefore, commas are not used, and your example is correct. A comma is not needed after the quotation either, because it is not direct.

I turn to him and mouth "bye."

This is a tricky one. I am actually not 100% sure on this, but I believe because nothing was actually said, it is not a direct quotation, and therefore would be correct the way you have it. Do note that all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, even if it isn't part of the quotation. Observe the period I've added above.

I try to shout "stop" again but the words won't come out.

I feel extremely tempted to say “just drive” and hope for the best.

Once again, nothing was actually said, meaning that both of these sentences are perfectly correct. Note that I made 'just' with a lowercase 'J,' because it is not the beginning of a direct quotation.

So a good rule of thumb to follow would be to determine if something is a direct quotation or not. If the quotation is what someone actually said, then it is, and you use commas and a capital. If it is what someone wanted to say, but didn't, or anything similar, it is not a direct quotation, and quotation marks alone will suffice.

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  • Hi Tommy, Thanks so much for this and for all the detail and examples - it's really useful. I think I'm much closer to grasping when to use capitals and commas and will be taking it on board. Many thanks! – MoniqueH Nov 7 '15 at 21:24
  • Can I just make sure I'm clear, if the word "stop" was actually said, do I still need a comma? E.g. I shouted "stop" and everyone turned around? Should a comma be there (I shouted, "stop") or is "stop" a kind of direct object? – MoniqueH Nov 7 '15 at 21:25
  • In that sentence, 'stop' is technically a direct object, yes. It gets really complex if you think about it that way though. Just determine if someone actually spoke. In your example, someone shouted the word 'stop.' Therefore, you are correct and it is a direct quotation. Do note that it would be: I shouted, "Stop!" and everyone turned around. You need a comma, capital, and another punctuation mark after the word stop (comma, exclamation, etc.). Remember, a direct quotation needs to be separated on both ends. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '15 at 22:08
  • I have removed the part in my answer about direct objects because I realized I was actually wrong. All quotations are direct objects (generally). The rule meant that if you areusing the quotation as part of your sentence, then it is not a direct quotation. However, it is a lot easier to just determine whether or not someone is actually speaking. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '15 at 22:12
  • Thanks Tommy. The reason I've been a little confused is that I am sure that I often see things like the following in books I've read: He said "hello" and walked out of the room. or He said "coffee" for the second time. Maybe I'm remembering incorrectly but that was what made me hesitate about the comma thing, especially with one-word direct quotation. As another example: I stare into his pale eyes, willing the word Stop to come out of my mouth. No commas or inverted commas needed here, but do I need the capital? It seems weird to me to write "stop" without the capital even with the italics. – MoniqueH Nov 7 '15 at 22:17
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Difficult concept and varies with style guide. In general,

1) It Is appropriate to capitalize the first word of a full sentence within a quote (motto s have different rules).

2) All versions of TO SAY should be followed by a conma

3) Exclamations such as "Stop!" should be capitalized with an exclamation point at the end. It does not need to finish a sentence and may be followed by narrative with lower case. He screamed, "Stop!" before racing down the street.

4) Internal thoughts do not need quotation marks (and this looks weird) I was thinking to myself, Just drive, right before she started down the street. However, I like to put thoughts in italics (despite my go-to style guide, THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, doesn't advocate this approach).

5) Questions within running commentary do not have to end a sentence and may be followed by commas. "I have three questions for you: Who are you?, what are you?, and what am I doing here?" The question marks are not necessary in this case, but may be used depending on inflection that you intend. However, __"My favorite book, [italics] Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is available at the bookstore down the street."__this example requires a comma after the question mark.

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  • I believe internal thoughts are writer preference. I've seen everything from no change, to italics, to single quotes, to a different font. However, I don't think the OP had any internal thoughts. It was mainly internal dialogue, which can be formatted differently. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 7 '15 at 21:17
  • Thanks very much for your advice Stu. Do I need a capital when I am referencing a word I don't actually say. E.g. I stare at her willing the word never to come out of my mouth. For some reason, it seems strange without the capital. – MoniqueH Nov 7 '15 at 22:26
  • I don't know of specific guidelines for variations on I was about to say ... . It's fiction. It's your story. However, if I were to use the rule for interjections (such as Stop above), you would write, I said, "Never." So, I would use a capital there, whether italics, roman, or quotes is up to you. – Stu W Nov 8 '15 at 10:34

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