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I'm trying to find the formatting convention for quoting another character's dialogue when repeating just one word.

An example would be:

'You were the only person I could think of,' said Mike. 'The job has some risk to it.'

'Risk? What kind of risk?'

The only options I can think of are either to italicise the word:

'Risk? What kind of risk?'

or to wrap the word in double inverted commas:

'"Risk"? What kind of risk?'

I've looked in various style guides, but can't find anything that specifically relates to a character just emphasizing one word from the previous dialogue, and double inverted commas seems excessive.

If there is no recommended style, I'm wondering whether it isn't formatted in any way at all.

Can anyone offer any guidance or point me to the relevant place in a style guide?

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  • Is this for fiction writing?
    – Alexander
    Jun 14, 2022 at 18:00
  • @Alexander, it's narrative non-fiction.
    – Ambie
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:04

5 Answers 5

13

In dialogue, either screenplay or novel, you wouldn't distinguish that at all.

It is quite common for respondents to repeat a word or phrase from a speaker.

Jack said, "I'm going to San Francisco."

Mary said, "San Francisco? I want to go!"

Just treat it as part of the respondent's dialogue. Don't do anything special.

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  • 1
    Great. Thanks. I'll get rid of my italics and go with this suggestion.
    – Ambie
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:09
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This is unlikely to be in style guides beyond the general advice on how to format quotations. So it's up to you how to format.

You certainly don't need punctuation for the repeated word, but you should consider the effect of punctuation.

If you don't use any kind of marking, the implication is that the characters are seriously considering a real risk: "Risk? What kind of risk?" This suggests that the character is interested in the risk and is somewhat concerned but not panicking. (Compare: "I went to the park and saw a dog." "What kind of dog?" That's a conversation about dogs.)

In contrast, quotation marks bring to mind scare quotes: they indicate some kind of skepticism or detachment from the term. "'Risk'? What kind of 'risk'?" suggests that the speaker doesn't accept there is risk, but is asking what the other character is talking about; or maybe thinks that "risk" is an understatement or otherwise a ridiculous term to use. ("I went to the park and saw a dog." "What kind of 'dog'?" That suggests the second person doesn't believe there was a dog.)

Italics have multiple functions. In fiction in speech they usually indicate emphasis (e.g. shouting), but in some contexts they can indicate detachment: identifying a concept under discussion; giving the name of an entity (e.g. a mathematical variable, a scientific symbol, a name/label); or a particular word being studied. Therefore "Risk? What kind of risk?" would most likely suggest emphasis of "risk" because there is a serious worry, although it might indicate that risk is a strange new concept just being encountered (similar to scare quotes). The interpretation will depend on how you use italics elsewhere.

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    I think the most common usage of italics in dialog is to show the character puts emphasis on the word. However, it's almost always better to show emphasis with action or dialog cues.
    – Erk
    Jun 14, 2022 at 16:39
  • Thanks. I'm mainly using italics for inner thoughts and technical terms, so your second para makes a lot of sense. Appreciate it.
    – Ambie
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:07
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Both Stuart F's and Amadeus' answers are correct for this case, where it's a single word being quoted. If, however, the second speaker is repeating an entire sentence or phrase from the first speaker (maybe in a mocking tone), you might want to emphasize it in the ways you were suggesting. e.g.:

"I told Mary we were going to bring a bottle of wine," said Jane, "but John forgot to bring his wallet again, so I hope this 2-liter of Coke will do, it was all we could afford with the cash in my purse."

"John forgot to bring his wallet again," complained John. "Well maybe if you'd left it on the counter where I put it instead of putting it away in the bedroom again I might not have missed it."

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  • Thanks. Yes, I haven't come across a case yet where the respondent quotes an entire sentence, but I'll follow your advice if I do.
    – Ambie
    Jun 14, 2022 at 22:08
  • 1
    Writing "both of the current answers" can get very confusing once there are more than two answers on the page. My opinion is that it would be clearer to say something like "Stuart F and Amadeus have both answered correctly". Jun 15, 2022 at 2:58
  • @DawoodibnKareem Fair point - edited. Jun 15, 2022 at 13:25
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I'd argue that all three answers are correct (including the first that's neither quoted nor italicized), but they'll lead to different reader interpretations.

In the first, I, at least, would interpret it as having no particular emphasis on the word "risk". In the second, I'd assume there's an emphasis on risk (meaning that the speaker perhaps hadn't previously thought there would be risk, but now is concerned there is based on the other conversationalist), and in the third case, I'd assume that the speaker was doubtful about the possibility of risk (so is vaguely scornful that the other conversationalist thinks there's risk).

Of course, that's my interpretation.

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There is no special format to show the fact of quoting, but in the example both the quoted 'Risk' and the 'kind' would be emphasized, which you might want to indicated with italics.

'Risk? What kind of risk?'

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