Should you only use colons and full stops in dialogues? I thought about using a semi-colon in one of my dialogues, but I had second thought about it, because when we talk, we don't really differentiate semi-colons from colons, so it almost in a way nonsensical to use semi-colons in dialogues. What do most authors tend to do concerning semi-colons? Is it ok to replace semi-colons with full stops? When would you personally use semi-colons?

For example:

"You need to record every action you make from now on; otherwise, the federal agents will arrest you for questioning." she recommended.

"You need to record every action you make from now on. Otherwise, the federal agents will arrest you for questioning." she recommended.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 23:06
  • Every single punctuation mark has value and its placement can change meaning and inference completely! Rachel
    – Rachel
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 15:57

6 Answers 6


Some people have some sort of dislike for semicolons. See The Good, the Bad and the Semicolon. If you're not comfortable using semicolons at all, that's up to you.

But if you do normally use semicolons, and are only not comfortable using them in dialogue, think of it this way: in dialogue, we use pauses. We do not give pauses names, we just stop for however long makes sense. In writing, we use punctuation to represent those stops, and give the punctuation marks names according to their length. Thus, we have:

  • Comma: a short stop
  • Semicolon: a medium stop
  • Em-dash: a medium stop
  • Period: a long stop
  • Elipsis: a really long stop
  • etc.

Since we do make medium stops in conversation, why shouldn't such a stop be marked by a semicolon?

Or, to think about it differently, imagine your entire novel being read out loud. (That's useful practice anyway, for multiple reasons.) A line of narration wouldn't be different from a line of dialogue then, right? Both are read out loud. So why would a semicolon belong in one place, and not the other?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Cyn
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 15:14

This may not be a popular view, but as I see it, punctuation is about meaning, and only indirectly about sound.

Speech includes a range of subtle variations in pitch, speed, volume, and pronunciation which all help to convey the intended meaning.  Writing doesn't have those — and no punctuation can represent them accurately.  So instead, punctuation has over time evolved to convey that meaning more directly.

(We see this in e.g. programming languages, where symbols have very precise meanings; but written language has been moving that way for centuries.)

That's why the various items of punctuation have specific uses, each expressing a different meaning.  Roughly speaking:

  • Full stops (‘periods’ in US English) separate sentences.

  • Commas separate related clauses, list items, and parenthetical phrases.

  • Colons introduce lists, examples, and explanations.

  • Semicolons separate independent clauses, and also list items where one or more items themselves contain commas.

  • An ellipsis (‘…’) indicates a trailing-off or unfinished sentence, or an omitted section of a quote.

  • Dashes can introduce parenthetical phrases, and more general pauses and breaks.

So the choice of punctuation isn't random, nor based on how long a speaker would pause (though there's likely to be an indirect relationship).  Instead, it depends on the exact meaning you want to convey.

And that applies whether the writing is representing someone's direct thoughts, or speech as reported in a newspaper or a novel or a script or whatever.

See for example this question.  And see this page and the bottom of this page for examples of how the choice of a colon or semicolon can affect the meaning in an unfortunate way!

  • 2
    "nor based on how long a speaker would pause " That punctuation indicates pacing, rather than both pacing and punctuation following from meaning, is an all too frequent misconception. Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 22:22

You should punctuate dialogue exactly the way you would punctuate the same sentence if it were not in dialogue (excepting the typographic rules around the placement of quotation marks).

A sentence is a sentence. A sentence fragment is a sentence fragment. Two independent clauses joined together are two independent clauses joined together. There are specific punctuation rules for all these things and they remain the same whether the sentence is in quotation marks or not.

You should not attempt to use punctuation as a way to inflect a sentence to show how an actor might speak it in a movie. There simply are no punctuation marks for that. Insead, recast your sentence so the the emphasis naturally falls where you want it. (You could use italics or bolding to indicate emphasis, though personally that makes me shudder.)

EDIT: It seems necessary to address this issues of pauses (though it is not part of the original question). There is a lot of confusion, including in published sources, about the relationship between punctuation in writing and pauses in speech. A lot of people seem to think that punctuation in writing is used to indicate pauses in speech. This is not so.

Language, whether spoken or written, consists of grammatical units -- groups of words used together to express a meaning. A sentence expresses a complete thought, which may be composed of one grammatical unit or of several. In the case where it consists of several grammatical units, there is the possibility of confusion about which words belong to which grammatical units, and that confusion can change the meaning of the grammatical units, thus creating ambiguity in the sentence. In order to avoid this ambiguity, we need to find a way to indicate which words belong to which grammatical units.

In written language, we do this with punctuation. (In English, that is. In inflected languages it is done, in part at least, with inflection, greatly reducing the need for punctuation.)

But in spoken language, we don't have punctuation, unless you want to adapt Victor Borge's audible punctuation system (Google that if you have never heard it; it's hilarious.) So in spoken language, we need a different way to indicate which words belong together to make up grammatical units. We do this with a combination of inflections and pauses.

There are far fewer pauses in speech than people imagine. We speak in a constant stream without pauses between words. The brain separates that stream of syllables into words and we imagine that we are actually hearing pauses between the words. But those pauses are not there. You can demonstrate this to yourself by listening to a language you don't understand. You won't hear pauses. You can also demonstrate it by attempting to speak without the pauses you think you hear between words. You can't do it, because there never were pauses in the first place. At some of the places where you would insert punctuation in writing, you will find a genuine pause in speaking, but not in most of them.

So, this notion that punctuation indicates pauses is incorrect. Rather, what punctuation indicates in writing, inflection, and (occasionally) pauses, indicates in speech. One is not a sign for another, they are different signs for the same thing in different media.

But there is no one to one correspondence between these two sign systems. They work quite differently from one another. What commas do in writing is sometimes done by inflection in speech and sometimes by a pause. It is not even a given that everything that is indicated by the punctuation rules of writing is indicated at all in speech (there is no Oxford comma debate in spoken language, for instance). We don't rely on either of these systems alone to disambiguate language. A lot of disambiguation is done simply by choosing the most likely meaning. And, of course, sometimes genuine ambiguity arises in both speech and writing, and not always in the same place or in the same way.

All of which does pose a problem for writing dialogue, which is supposed to represent speech, not written language. There is an obvious temptation for the writer to want to indicate how the dialogue would actually have been spoken -- to act it out, as it were.

But the literary mainstream has never done this. It has, with only isolated exceptions, always punctuated dialogue as written language. The reason for this, I believe, is precisely that there is no direct correspondence between our written and spoken systems for delineating grammatical units. They don't correspond to each other, and therefore one cannot be used reliably to indicate the other.

This means that if you try to use punctuation not as it is used in written language, but as means to simulate the use of inflections and pauses in spoken language, you are certain to fail, for some or all of your readers, because the two systems simply don't correspond.

The solution that has been used down through the ages is, therefore, to punctuate dialogue as written language and allow the reader to translate it into spoken language in their heads (if, indeed, they read that way). And this works very well almost all the time because we are used to doing this translation anyway.

SECOND EDIT: For a further demonstration that we don't pause between words in speech, and don't pause for most punctuation either, consider singing. Music and singing form a continuous sound with no pauses between notes. This makes a rest, when it does occur in music, an incredibly powerful device because of how rare it is and how disruptive it is to the flow of the music. Pauses in speech are equally powerful rhetorical devices, and are used more often. But such pauses often don't correspond to where commas would occur in text. For instance, when Jeremy Clarkson says that some car is "The fastest car in the world." he puts a huge dramatic pause before "in the world." But there is no punctuation mark there.

We generally speak in a continuous flow of sound, just as we sing. Occasionally we pause in speech, either for dramatic effect, or to indicate a grammatical break. Sometimes we pause at the same place where we would put a comma in written language, but we don't pause for most commas and we when we do pause, it is often not at a place where a comma or any other kind of punctuation would occur in writing.

  • 3
    For a perfect example of Script Punctuation and Dialogue Pauses being completely unrelated, you. Should look. No. Further-than. William. Shatner. Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 15:02
  • @Chronocidal, or Jeremy Clarkson's pause before "in the world". "The idea that commas indicate pauses is the biggest misconception,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, in the world."
    – user16226
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 15:10
  • "its hilarious" You're missing a chirp between the "it" and "s". Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 22:33

For writing fiction, I don't use semicolons in dialogue (spoken or thoughts) and I don't use it in prose.

That said, I am in Galastel's camp on other forms of punctuation indicating to the reader various lengths of pauses in a character's speech, or verbalized thoughts. sometimes to take a breath, or to think -- or cut short a sentence and change their mind about what they are saying. Perhaps to hesitate before saying something crucial.

I believe in practice that this is how people actually read, that they will read those pauses and hesitations into the dialogue. The reason I don't use semicolons is I think most people are not sure what to do with them. Also, in Galastel's table, if I want a medium pause, I'll use a dash or em-dash. The semicolon is redundant.

To me there is a difference in pacing for the following sentences:

(1) "Do you want red blue or yellow?"
(2) "Do you want red, blue or yellow?"
(3) "Do you want red, blue, or yellow?"
(4) "Do you want red, blue -- or yellow?"
(5) "Do you want red, blue ... or yellow?

(1) is spoken in a rush.
(2) is normal, but (3) is spoken more deliberately slowly around the color choices to give each fair consideration, as if the person speaking is showing samples of the color, or pointing at them.
(4) has a more dramatic pause after "blue" that will emphasize "yellow", enough for the listener to notice but not to think about interrupting.
(5) the ellipsis causes a long enough pause that the listener will have a thought in-between, it seems like the speaker is mentally occupied after the word "blue", thinking or searching for something, or is more deliberately pausing for dramatic effect.

I think in practice readers "hear" dialogue and verbalized thought as spoken speech and as authors if anything is said in an unusual or unexpected matter we should indicate that with punctuation, including (very rarely) emphasis by italics. I don't think the same rules apply in prose as are applied to dialogue or verbalized thought (in italics, without quotes, but like dialogue in separate paragraphs and tagged as thoughts in non-italics).

Verbalized thought example:

That lady is bad-ass, Cheryl thought.

  • 2
    Your last line is a perfect example of why hyphens are important: as written, it equates the lady with a poor mule! Whereas ‘bad-ass’ (or, in UK English, ‘bad-arse’) would remove that ambiguity.
    – gidds
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 13:26
  • @gldds Agreed! Edited.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 13:46
  • TVM! (Sorry, but I'm very fussy about punctuation. 😀 And it depresses me how often hyphens are omitted when they're required, or at least helpful.)
    – gidds
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 13:56
  • For the examples you give (and also the two examples in the original question) I would read/hear/expect the different variations to differ not solely in the length of a pause, but also in the prosody "around" the punctuation mark; intonation/prosody is a significant marker on whether the utterance is marked as 'complete' and the only way we reflect these differences in written text is using variations of punctuation.
    – Peteris
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 16:27
  • 1
    In regards to the actual answer, I agree with @Chronocidal that items 2 and 3 are completely the same. If Oxford commas didn't exist then I probably would be inclined to interpret it as a pause, but instead my instinct is to read it as an Oxford comma and thus treat it the same as item 2. Item 1 just looks like a mistake to me - like the author forgot a comma. Also I think the dash example looks odd for some reason but can't put my finger on it. It might just be because you've got two symbols there instead of a single dash.
    – Pharap
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:56

So from your example, it sounds like the scene is a lawyer is advising a client, so with that in mind I would write the sentence:

"You need to record every action you make from now on, otherwise the federal agents will arrest you for questioning," she recommended.

Keep in mind, Dialog is less beholden to the rules of grammar because people don't talk with perfect grammar all the time. For example, the English language second person plural is "You" but I am from a part of the world where people tend to use "Y'all" for the same meaning, which is not proper English meaning... and it gets worse as the number of people being addressed in the second person plural rises... then you say "All y'all". So if I was writing my dialog, I would language that indicates my character's manner of speaking, but in my narration, I would use proper grammar (Unless it's first person, then I might make it sound like the speaker's voice).

With all that said, the reason I used commas twice. In the first case, this is because she is giving her client a rule and explaining why the rule exists. You can easily morph it into the lawyer saying "If you do not do x, then Y".

The second comma at the end of questioning requires a sentence diagram explanation, which I can't draw. As you know, sentences require a verb (action) that is done by a subject to the predicate. So the verb answers "what action is being taken?", a subject answers "who took the action?" and the predicate asks "To Whom/What is the thing that was affected by the action?. In your sample, the action is "recommend", the person recommending is "she" and the thing affected by the action is the quote dialog. "She recommended." is technically a complete sentence as you do not always need a predicate, but when writing dialog, the quotation is the predicate when paired with a speaker indication, because of this, when the subject/speaker and the verb appear after the quote, the last line closes with a comma. Depending on if you are using British English or an American may affect where you put the comma (British English puts the comma outside of quotation mark, Americans put it on the inside) and both sides agree that a period is placed at the end of the dialog tag when it comes after the quoted dialog. If the dialog tag comes before the quote, both sides will use put the comma between the end of the tag and the quotation mark, and will end with a period at the end of the quote (following the same rules as the above comma rule... and these really only matter if your teacher is grading).

I know that last part wasn't part of the question, but so I apologize for the nitpick.

  • Texas, huh? I grew up in "you all" territory myself.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 19:00
  • Nope, Maryland (we're an odd mix of Southern and Northern. When they talk about Lincoln suspending constitutional rights during the civil war, 9/10 it's something he did to prevent Maryland from leaving the Union... and residents of the state fought on both sides.). There are pockets of strong southern accents to this day... and the general accent is a north-south hybrid.
    – hszmv
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 19:06
  • Not that surprised to hear a "Y'all" from there, but "All y'all" at least used to be a pretty good Texas marker.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 19:59

In a written work descriptive text is intended to be read, it should convey its meaning as effectively as possible and, as Accumulation has said, the purpose of the punctuation is to help make the meaning clear, not to indicate pacing.

Dialogue is quite different. The reader is trying to understand the thoughts of the speaker, who cannot be assumed to be even trying to make his meaning clear. The reader should be trying to ignore the fact that he is reading text and concentrating on imagining what the speaker would actually sound like. In this context punctuation is concerned only with pacing and inflection. For this, I think, only comma, full stop, exclamation and question marks are useful. Some people may claim that colon and semicolon can convey subtle differences in the lengths of pauses, but I suspect that most people would associate them with lists and not find them helpful within dialogue.

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