8

Most authors use dialogue in writing, especially when writing fiction. Now, if I remember my first grade primary school correctly, dialogue can be directly separated from narration in a number of ways.

Either quotation marks,

"Murder," she said.

dashes,

-Murder,- she said.

or angle brackets / angle carets / Guillemets:

«Murder,» she said.

I'm a personal fan of the last example and I dislike using quotation marks for dialogue, but that's just my personal opinion. What I'm wondering here is if, from a typographic standpoint, there are reasons to prefer one over the other when reporting dialogue.

This is limited to the scope of creative writing mainly, since non-creative (e.g. technical) writing usually has stricter rules.

EDIT: Apparently dialogue writing conventions are higly dependant on country-specific cultural conventions. To be fair, I didn't imagine that.

  • 13
    What you have there are different cultural conventions. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quotation_mark#Specific_language_features – user37767 Apr 9 at 17:57
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    @Luba this should probably be edited into an answer or listed as a new answer, because this is the right one. – Blue Caboose Apr 9 at 20:53
  • All I can say is that as an American it hurts to see the third one, and the second one is maybe fine for 1 or 2 words, but nothing long – Reinstate Monica NOW Apr 11 at 16:29
  • Cormac McCarthy doesn't follow any of those examples. – LarsTech Apr 11 at 19:20
  • @LarsTech So what does he follow? – Reinstate Monica. Apr 12 at 8:10

10 Answers 10

29

I think this is dependent on the convention in the country or location where you are publishing. In the U.S., it's double quotes, but in Britain, it's often single quotes. I believe France and Italy use guillemets. I've seen the dashes but I don't recall where they are used.

The upshot is that, as JonStonecash wisely said, use whatever will be expected by and invisible to your readers.

  • 5
    I can say Poland uses em-dashes. – SF. Apr 9 at 11:48
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    indeed french novels I've read have used guillements – BKlassen Apr 9 at 15:06
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    In Brazil the dialog is written with the dash. However the double quotes are gaining popularity as lazy translators use lazy software that cares only for textual content and not typography to make their translations. The norm, however is to use dashes. cobra.pages.nom.br/ctp-tec-tracoetravessao.html – Mindwin Apr 9 at 17:50
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    Please don't perpetuate the myth that British English uses single quotes. It's not a hard and fast rule by any means. – Andrew Leach Apr 9 at 23:37
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    @MarkAmery: Sample of dialogue in books that happen to fall easily to hand: Lord of the Rings, single quotes. Mansfield Park, single quotes. Summer Knight (Dresden Files, UK printing), single quotes. Order of the Phoenix, single quotes. Star Trek V (UK printing), double quotes. – Tim Pederick Apr 10 at 14:05
21

As a retired engineer, I habitually focus on the end result. While all of the choices are valid, I suspect that most readers will find all but the traditional double quotes to be jarring. If that is the result you are seeking, go for it. If you want the mechanics of dialogue to disappear then I would stick to said, asked, and double quotes.

An exception might be in order if there are more than one means to convey dialogue, such as telepathy or some special communication channel. If it is important to the story, you might use one of the alternate approaches to signify the difference.

Albert Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." My point is that you should use whatever is needed to tell your story. And, if it is not needed, don't use it.

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    +1. If I saw angle brackets or dashes used for ordinary dialogue, I'd stop and go back over the last couple of pages, because I'd assume I missed the part where the characters are telepathic/wearing headsets/texting/whatever. – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 17:29
  • @EvilSparrow These are <angle brackets>. These are «speech marks». – Rich Apr 10 at 16:58
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    @Rich That's precisely the point. Standard English orthography uses neither < > nor « », so nobody needs to know what to call them! – alephzero Apr 10 at 17:34
  • @alephzero Wow. Ignorance as a virtue, huh? – Rich Apr 11 at 19:20
9

The convention in English is to use double quotes, or occasionally, single quotes. Anything else if jarring and confusing. I don't know what first grade teacher said that hyphens or angle brackets are a routine way to identify quotes. If this was a teacher of the English language, he was just what I like to call "wrong".

You might use some other notation for special cases. Like if you're writing a science fiction novel and you need some way to set off the aliens' non-verbal communication or the telephathic links or some such.

You can, of course, always break the conventions. But have a reason to do it, not just because you prefer some alternate convention. As for any writing rule, if the rule gets in the way of the story, sure, break it. But don't break rules just because you feel like it.

But for normal human speech, use quotes. Anything else, readers will have to figure out that you're using this other symbol instead of quotes for no apparent reason, and it will be continually jarring.

7

There are two other common options.

Italics.

Murder, she said.

And nothing at all.

Murder, she said.

Or more likely set up as narration.

She said murder.

I prefer anything to the nothing option. I honestly don't know what goes through an author's head choosing that. Do they think readers enjoy not being sure if a character is speaking or thinking or if the narrator is talking?

As an American reading in English, my preference for the other options is clear: double quote marks. Specifically, curly quotes (straight quotes, like you see in this post, are fine for online reading, but for a book, they need to be curly).

Italics is gimmicky for speech, though readable. I'd rather see them saved for character thoughts and other unspoken utterances.

Your other examples may be the preference in other countries that use English or in other languages. If that's the case in the language/country you're writing in, use them. None of them would make for seamless reading in the U.S.

Your typographic goal is to make the marks invisible and glaringly obvious at the same time. Just like "she said" is. There's no doubt who said it but you barely notice. Dialogue marks should be the same way. Your eye should glide across the page not even paying attention to punctuation, yet you know without a doubt which words were spoken out loud.

  • 6
    As you say, italics (or nothing) seem quite common for indicating a character's inner thoughts, or other non-speech monologue. But for speech, speech marks are much clearer, as well as avoiding some types of ambiguity. – gidds Apr 10 at 11:00
5

In simple prose in English use inverted commas “ ” or ‘ ’ It is a matter of preference which to use. Double quote marks are unlikely to be confused with apostrophes, but single quotes are shorter and less intrusive.

Paragraphing properly is also important. Each change of speaker requires a new paragraph, even if they only say one word.

Some authors dislike standard quotation marks. James Joyce (Ulysses) never used inverted commas, and hated that some editors "corrected" his manuscript to include them. He began each quote with an em dash at the start of a line and ended the quote by context or a paragraph break.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror then covered the bowl smartly.

— Back to barracks, he said smartly.

He added in a preacher's tone:

— For this, O dearly beloved is the genuine Christine [...]

Guillemets are not used in standard English, nor are the various conventions of double commas found in German, Polish and some other languages. „Guten Tag!“

3

There is another style of marking dialogue, used very frequently on Brazillian Portuguese - the "travessão".

Personally, I find it clearer than those other styles as it enables you to create a sharp difference between what your characters are saying and what they are thinking.

When using the travessão, you have to play around a bit on how you write the text to push dialogue to its own sections. It isn't hard to do, but it creates a somewhat different flow to the text that - in my humble opinion! - makes it easier to structure the overall scene.

An example of it at work:


Camille was nervous, shaking inside her boots while strolling down the dark alley. She hated that meeting spot, but it was the only place she could think of that wouldn't draw unwanted attention from the local gangsters.

— Hey, Dumbface! Over here!

The sudden call made her feet jump and her heart race for a moment, but as soon as her brain managed to recognize the voice as being Adam's, her skittish behavior gave away in a sigh of relief.

— You're such a glitch, A. Don't scare me like that.

— That's not intentional, knife-ears. It was you that picked this spot, anyway. I told we could have used my place.

A short, stocky man walked out of the shadows, bringing himself closer to Camille with a large smile on his fair, jovial face. His behavior was cheerful and energetic as usual, even in the dire circumstances that prompted this rushed encounter. Camille couldn't help but wonder if there was anything similar to fear or worry inside that head covered by long, blonde locks.

Her voice went down to a whisper.

— Alright, alright. Now, please try to be quiet. We have important things to discuss.

"I'll regret this so much tomorrow morning", she wondered, as bad memories flooded her mind bringing her recent issues with her brother to the top of her mind. The chance was small, but if she acted soon she could very well reclaim not only everything he stole from her but last living blood relative she still had.

It was worth a shot.


  • So, a long dash followed by a break to the next paragraph. Neat. – Reinstate Monica. Apr 10 at 13:09
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    How does it indicate the speaker? – Weckar E. Apr 10 at 17:29
  • @WeckarE. By context, usually. Traditionally, the last character referred is the one who starts speaking, and the others are then inferred by what they are saying. If you need to clarify further, add some breaks between the dialog to provide an extra descriptions and toss the ball to the next speaker. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Apr 10 at 17:46
  • @WeckarE., you can have it like this — <Line of dialogue>, — <description of who said that, or just what character was doing while or after saying the line>, — <line of dialogue cont'd (if there is need to)>. If your text is dialogue heavy (and not yet a play script), em-dash punctuation is good way to make it easier to read. – user28434 Apr 11 at 13:31
  • I have seen this style in old translations of Jules Verne, but not in anything more recent in English. i would avoid it (in US English) unless aiming at an antique feel. – David Siegel Apr 12 at 0:05
2

As JonStonecash has said, the other choices would be jarring. I know that I expect quotation marks to indicate spoken dialogue.

While all are sound, the traditional quotation marks have the weight and benefit of tradition, rendering them invisible.

It is your book, but if you want readers to enjoy it, allow for the possibility that the punctuation you select can disturb immersion, if only briefly.

Quotation marks are so commonly used that the use of the others might make a reader pause and then go on - ah, yes, dialogue.

0

I haven't heard of or seen dashes or brackets being used to indicate dialogue. Primary teachers make up a lot of things, for example that you can't begin sentences with 'because'. It is because they have to simplify things.

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    Because they have to simplify things, primary teachers make up a lot of things. FTFY – CDspace Apr 9 at 20:39
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    Dashes are really common on Brazillian Portuguese and other latin-based languages. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Apr 10 at 12:06
  • That's because dash use is country-specific. Some use them, some don't. – Overmind Apr 11 at 12:10
0

«TEXT» and "TEXT" are use for quoting /citation. The marks are used at the beginning and the end of the cited text.

Example:

"Of all things, I liked books best."

«Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.»

N. Tesla.

- TEXT is used for dialogue. Example:

 - Do you have some water ?

 - Yes.

 - It is cold ?

 - No.

Dash (-) can also be used as a pause line.

Example:

 –  What's your name ?

 –  Like my grandfather - Michael.

  • 「"…"」 is only used by people that both slept in writing lessons at school and did not ever come into contact with anything typographic. You mean 「“…”」 certainly. Similar for various kinds of dashes, with various widths of spaces around them; Unicode provides, thankfully. – mirabilos Apr 11 at 12:05
  • Your comment is unclear. Note that this site re-formats certain characters. My initial dashes ended up as paragraph dots. Btw, [...] means more content was in that quote but it's not relevant to the point so it's skipped. – Overmind Apr 11 at 12:12
  • My comment is completely clear and formatted correctly. I used Japanese quotation marks 「…」 to quote the quotation marks. (Still didn’t grok it? Don’t use straight quotes U+0022.) – mirabilos Apr 11 at 12:33
0

I want to add a piece of trivia from a book a read. In the book, the author used two types of marking for dialogue. He used thing like

I was walking down the hallway, when I heard over my shoulder:

– Hey, dickface !

to express oral speech, and

«Hello» I answered.

to express conversations that where happening telepathically.

As you guessed, this book had a fantasy setting, and the author used both formats to easily inform the reader HOW the conversation was currently handled.

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