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Mini Lesson: Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

I'll admit, today's mini lesson focuses on a pet peeve of mine: punctuating interrupted dialogue. I've seen so many different (incorrect) versions, and they do get quite inventive, but we definitely need to clear this one up.

As a foundation, I am assuming you all know how to punctuate basic dialogue—rules like using a comma in place of a period with a dialogue tag, not capitalizing the tag if it's after the dialogue, etc. For a simple example: "Hello," she said.

Today I want to focus specifically on what happens when something (or someone) interrupts a character who's speaking mid-sentence. There are three different ways to write this correctly:
  1. Use a speech verb with a modifier. For example: "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner, "over by the bookshelves."
    • Because you're using a speech verb (said), you punctuate it like any other dialogue tag, with a comma before the closing quotation mark.
    • In this case, the extra action (pointing to the corner) is added on following a comma because the modifier is subordinate to the main verb (still said).
    • Because you're interrupting one sentence ("Look over there, over by the bookshelves."), a comma is also used to lead into the second half of the dialogue, and that second bit of dialogue is not capitalized.
      • Keep in mind, the dialogue in this example could be two separate sentences: "Look over there. Over by the bookshelf." This is a different speech pattern, and if this is how you'd like your character to speak, then there would be a period after "corner," and the second bit of dialogue would be capitalized:
          "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner. "Over by the bookshelves."
  2. Use an em dash inside the quotation marks to cut off the character mid-dialogue, usually with either (A) another character speaking or (B) an external action.
    • A: "Look over there—"
      "By the bookshelves," Jamie added before Sheila could clarify. 
    • B: "Look over there—"
      A stack of boxes clattered to the ground.
    • Including the em dash at the end of the line of dialogue signifies that your character wasn't finished speaking.
      • Sometimes unfinished lines of dialogue end with an ellipsis. This is grammatically correct, but it signifies your character trailing off as if losing their train of thought or drifting off to sleep, not something or someone else interrupting their words.
    • If you want to make a point of the speaking character's action interrupting their own dialogue, you could also use this punctuation, writing:
        "Look over there—" She snapped her mouth shut so she didn't give the secret away.
    • Note that in most such instances a new sentence starts after the closing quotation mark, so of course the first word would need to be capitalized.
    • If instead you're following the interrupted line with a dialogue tag, you would leave the tag lowercase, as usual. For example:
      • "Is everything—" she started to ask, but a sharp look cut her off.
  3. Use em dashes outside the quotation marks to set off a bit of action without a speech verb. For example: "Look over there"—she pointed to the corner—"by the bookshelves."
    • Do not merely use commas, because in such cases there is no speech verb, and therefore it isn't a dialogue tag and can't be punctuated like one.
      • Wrong: "Look over there," she pointed to the corner, "by the bookshelves."
        • Pointed isn't a speech verb, but this punctuation indicates that she is "pointing" her words to the corner. If we were to replace pointed with called, this punctuation would become correct, as in example #1 above.
    • Do not put the em dashes inside the quotation marks if the line of dialogue continues after the interruption. 
      • Wrong: "Look over there—" she pointed to the corner "—by the bookshelves."
    • Also wrong? Putting em dashes half in and half out, or combining em dashes with commas. If you're segmenting a line of dialogue without using a speech verb, make sure to close the quotation marks after the first bit of dialogue, use two em dashes around the interruption, then open the quotation marks again for the second part.
  • Bonus: If we're tuning into someone's dialogue in the middle, you can absolutely open the dialogue with an em dash or an ellipsis, making sure not to capitalize the first word. For example:
        Sheila found Jason leaning against the wall. "—why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.
          (Or: "...why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.)
    • This does not work if we're catching a full sentence, in other words if there would have been a period (or question mark, or exclamation point) had we "heard" what came before. In such a case, the narration or tag can clue us in to having missed part of the dialogue:
        "So that's why we'll never go to Starbucks again," Jason finished explaining.

As you can see, there are many ways to punctuate your dialogue. Each option affects the speech pattern of your character as well as the flow of your narration, so make sure your choices are intentional. Words matter, and so does punctuation!

    Have questions? Would you like to suggest a Mini Lesson subject? Share in the comments!

    93 comments:

    1. How do you interrupt a dialog with the characters own internal dialog?

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      1. Great question! You'd choose option 2 or 3 as appropriate, based on whether the dialogue cuts off entirely or continues after the interruption. With direct thought, you would also capitalize and italicize. For example:

        "Look over there"—Do I have to do everything?—"over by the bookshelf."

        Some in-house style guides don't italicize direct thought, in which case you'd follow the guide but still punctuate according to the same rules. With indirect thought, you would follow the rules in the post like with any other narration.

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    2. What about dialogue that is interrupted mid-word?

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      1. Hi Katie,

        If you're cutting off dialogue mid-word, rule #2 applies:
        "He was defi—" A stack of boxes clattered to the ground.

        If you want to interrupt a character in the middle of the word and then have them finish the thought, convey that via narration:

        "He was defi—" Her hand flew to her throat as she stifled a cough. After a sip of water, she continued, "—nitely planning on coming."

        Use an option like this sparingly, and make sure your character really would choose to continue mid-word, rather than repeating the full word or even starting over.

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    3. Hi there - how would you punctuate when the interrupted dialogue is not connected. I have just changed the following to a cap D for Do. Would you all agree?
      “I’ll have a coffee,” he said to the waiter then, turning to her, “Do you have any more information? Have I kept you too long this time?”

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      1. Your capitalization is correct, Glenda, but the tag is awkward right now. I'd actually recommend splitting it up, for example:

        “I’ll have a coffee,” he said to the waiter then turned back to her. “Do you have any more information?”

        or: “I’ll have a coffee,” he said to the waiter. Turning back to her, he continued, “Do you have any more information?”

        Does that make sense?

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    4. I am using the "—" to indicate dialogues. So how can I indicate an interrupted dialogue in a mid-word? Can I use the "—" or maybe "-"?

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      1. First, unless you have a compelling reason to use a quotation dash in an English-language work, I'd strongly recommend you use quotation marks. While some authors writing in English have chosen to use the quotation dash, there's a reason most use quotation marks: clarity. Remember, the goal of punctuation is to help get your meaning across to the reader.

        That being said, the specifics of how to punctuate an interrupted word, or rather how awkward it would look to use an em dash (still the appropriate punctuation), would depend on precisely how you use the quotation dash as there are different options. However, it will almost certainly look awkward, and I would generally caution against using that kind of construction if you're using the quotation dash. (This is another reason to use quotation marks—the flexibility their clarity gives you.)

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      2. Oh, I see... I'm from Brazil and here we usually use dash to write dialogues, and your blog was the first I've found explaining about dialogues interrupted in a mid-word (I couldn't find anything about it in portuguese). I totally forgot that here we construct dialogues in a different way. We hardly ever use quotation marks this way.

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      3. If you're writing in Portuguese and can't find an answer, I'd recommend prioritizing clarity. if your readers can understand exactly what you mean and you're consistent, then you should be okay.

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    5. I've never been taught about the em dash in school. I had to go out of my way to find this information because I kept finding the em dash in writing, but never had an explanation about when and where to use it. That being said, I use commas for just about everything, including interrupting dialogue with an action. So, just to clarify, should you only use commas when there is a declaration of speech? I'll give an example.

      This is what I've been taught (using an offhanded excerpt from my writing):

      "Um," James pointed his thumb at the exit, "The sign outside of your town says, 'Ghoti.'"

      But this is what it should be:
      "Um—" James pointed his thumb at the exit "—the sign outside of your town says, 'Ghoti.'"

      Unless it is worded like this:
      "Um," James began as he pointed his thumb at the exit, "the sign outside of your town says, 'Ghoti.'"

      Am I understanding this correctly?

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      1. You almost have it right, Megan. Yes, only use commas when there's a speech verb, like in your last example. Your first example, as you said, is wrong because there is no speech tag.

        But remember that when using em dashes to interrupt dialogue like in your second example, the em dashes have to go outside the quotation marks (like in example #3 in the post). So it should be:

        "Um"—James pointed his thumb at the exit—"the sign outside of your town says, 'Ghoti.'"

        Let us know if you have any other questions!

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    6. Hi! I am so thankful I found this page. Would you please show an example of two people continuing to cut each other off, using em dashes? Are they used on both ends of the sentence and/or how many dashes on either end?
      (ie) "I don't know. I don't know what to think about-"
      "-you're still lying-" <--(I'm not sure whether to capitalize "you're")
      "-I'm not lying!"

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      1. Glad you found it helpful, Mandy!

        In your example, the second and third sentences are not interrupted—they're full thoughts. Only the first line is actually interrupted, so the way it would be punctuated is:

        "I don't know. I don't know what to think about—"
        "You're still lying."
        "I'm not lying!"

        Narration of course helps if you want to clarify that they're speaking over one another. But the em dash is only necessary when someone's sentence is being cut off. Another example:

        "I don't know what to think about—"
        "Why are you still ly—" [note: an em dash can cut someone off mid-word]
        "I'm not lying! You're just—"
        "Oh yes you are, always making things up about me."

        In this case, the first three lines are interrupted, so all three use an em dash at the end. But since we "hear" each person's first words, the start of each line of dialogue is punctuated (and capitalized) like usual.

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      2. Thank you so much, that clears up a lot of confusion for me. For some reason I had it in my head that the em dash needed to occur where the first speaker was interrupted, and then continued at the beginning of the 'interrupter's' sentence as well, which looked very messy (to me) in print. I'm sorry if you repeated yourself - I did read through the previous answers before posting, but wasn't seeing anything that specifically pertained to both speakers cutting each other off. So is there any time that if both speakers are cutting each other off continually, an em dash would go at the beginning? Like if one finished the other's sentence?

        "We are sisters and we always know--"
        "--what the other is going to say."
        (would an em dash be appropriate in beginning here, or just for the first speaker and not for the second?)
        "We are sisters and we always know --"
        "What the other is going to say."

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      3. The em dash in this case replaces something the speaker said which the reader doesn't get to "hear." So in your example, no em dash because the second speaker is chiming in with a fragment. There aren't any words missing for the em dash to replace.

        If you had overlapping snatches of speech, you could in fact have lines that both start and end with an em dash, like so:

        "Why are you still ly—"
        "—not lying, you just never—"
        "—always making things up—"
        "—let me finish!" [In this case, the em dash is replacing something like "will you," though the sentence could also be complete, in which case no em dash and capitalize "let" like above.]

        So it's definitely an option if we aren't hearing the beginning of the speaker's words. In that case, do use an em dash and don't capitalize the first word since the beginning of the sentence is cut off.

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    7. My question is when using em dashes to interrupt dialogue are all forms of punctuation ignored prior to the to the interruption. Example: "Dialogue ending in an exclamation mark!"—action—"continuing dialogue..." So, would the exclamation mark be omitted in this case or is this grammatically correct? Furthermore, would this also apply to a question mark?

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      1. If you're including terminal punctuation (period, question mark, exclamation mark), your speaker's sentence isn't being interrupted, so you wouldn't use em dashes at all. You would simply end the line of dialogue, have a sentence of narration, and then have a new line of dialogue, even if it's the same speaker continuing. For example:

        "Look what we have here!" He put his hands in his pockets. "Didn't think I'd be seeing you today."

        The exclamation point can be replaced with a period without changing any other punctuation. Similarly, with a question:

        "What do we have here?" He put his hands in his pockets. "Didn't think I'd be seeing you today."

        Em dashes are only used when you're interrupting a single sentence of dialogue. For example:

        "What do we"—he stifled a cough—"have here?"

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      2. I see. Thanks for the clarity. I find dialogue to be the hardest thing to get correct.

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    8. Occasionally, I use ellipses at the beginning of dialogue to indicate a pause or hesitation before speaking. First, is this acceptable? Second, if it is, would I capitalize the first word, since it is essentially the beginning of the sentence?

      For example:

      "Will you be there tonight?" he asked.
      "...Perhaps."

      I know it would be easy in this context to write something like: "She hesitated before answering." But there are times where that doesn't seem to fit the flow of the narrative.

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      1. It's absolutely acceptable to use an ellipsis at the start of a line of dialogue to indicate missing words.

        So if your "full" line of dialogue had been: "We could go to the market in the morning."

        And you wrote: "...market in the morning."

        That would be absolutely fine, since the ellipsis indicates (in a slightly different way than an em dash) that we missed part of what's being said.

        In your example, however, where the line of dialogue is complete (meaning your character didn't say something we missed before "perhaps"), you should indeed be using narration, not an ellipsis. And if it doesn't feel right the flow of your narration, you should try to adjust the way you describe it so it does.

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    9. Hi! So I'm struggling with this sentence and not sure how to do it. Basically, my character is saying "What? No" with the "no" having a confused tone. But he's cutting himself off as well, because he's flustered. So this is how it currently reads: "What? No," Luke replied with a shake of his head, finally unfolding the paper wad. "What the hell is this, anyways?"

      Would I keep it as is? I know an ellipses after "no" wouldn't fit because he's not trailing off. He's being ribbed about having a crush, so I kind of wanted to showcase that here. Thank you!

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      1. Hi Bee,

        There's nothing incorrect about how you currently have it, but you do have the option of playing with the punctuation a bit, depending on the inflection you'd like to portray. Consider the difference between: "What? No!" and "What! No?" (Or even "What? No?")

        If he's cutting himself off mid-sentence, you could use an em dash. For instance, if the full sentence would be "No I don't!" your text could read: "What? No—" Luke shook his head, finally unfolding the paper.

        You can also use more evocative narration, for example:
        "What? No." Hesitation clung to Luke's denial. Cheeks burning, he latched onto the wad of paper as a distraction, finally unfolding it. "What the hell is this, anyways?"

        So the great news is you have many options. It all depends on the nuance you want to achieve.

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    10. How would you show someone interupting a sentence with a sound effect? Like for example:

      Her voice slurred as she spoke, "I have," (Hiccup) "no idea what you are talking about."

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      1. You're describing an action, so in general, it would be punctuated according to scenario 3:

        "I have"—she hiccuped—"no idea what you are talking about."

        If you're set on including only the sound, not the action, you'd still use em dashes outside the quotation marks, since the dialogue is being interrupted without a speech verb involved, but also italicize the sound:

        "I have"—hiccup—"no idea what you are talking about."

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    11. I am formatting my deceased mother’s books and see she has used the em dash 100s of times but with a period after it, i.e:

      “Glynis—.” He dismounted, and looking at her he seemed curiously unsure of himself.
      “My lord—.” and her voice was shy.
      He tried to—.” but she could say no more.

      I cannot find any examples anywhere on the web nor in my bookshelf where em dash is punctuated. However my mother was English and old school educated.

      1.
      Should I just delete the period or can I leave it as it is?

      2.
      You mentioned we must capitalise the following sentence after the em dash/quotation mark? In some places my mother has and others she hasn’t.

      Can you kindly point me in the right direction? It's so confusing...

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      1. 1: An em dash is considered terminal punctuation when it cuts off dialogue, so you wouldn't need the periods before the closing quotation marks and should remove them.

        2: Thanks for this question, which prompted me to add clarification to the post. In some cases, a truncated line of dialogue is followed by a dialogue tag, which would remain lowercase as usual. In all of your examples, your mother started new sentences, so those would be capitalized. But if, for example, she'd written:

        “My lord—” she started to say, but a sharp gesture cut her off.

        The dialogue tag would remain lowercase.

        A separate question is whether your mother's writing really needs hundreds of em dashes cutting off lines of dialogue, but of course that's for her (and now you) to decide.

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    12. Thank you for this post. I know this is specifically targeting interruptions, but what if a character is stammering in his sentence, so he is "interrupting" his own flow of thoughts? I found information on people having a stutter, but I don't mean for him to stutter but to simply change what he's saying, or to stutter between two whole words rather than just sounds.

      For example, would this be correct: "I don't really—Actually, never mind," he said.

      What if he was just stammering: "I don't—don't really..."
      In this case he's stuttering the whole word rather than something like "d-don't" because I feel like people stutter whole words at time?

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      1. The main thing to focus on is of course clarity for the reader, and your use of em dashes does achieve that. But using your examples, you could make the first one more clear by shifting the dialogue tag:

        "I don't really—" he said. "Actually, never mind."

        People do occasionally repeat entire words as they're searching for what to say, but I'd suggest using that sparingly. First, we don't write fiction exactly how people speak, for example cutting out the many "boring" pieces of our usual conversations. But also, you can convey in narration that a character has this tendency to repeat words and highlight it in dialogue only when it's especially relevant, such as when the character is first introduced or perhaps particularly nervous.

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    13. Thank you so much for this entire lesson! I think all of the comments propelled this "mini" lesson into a full one, thankfully! I truly appreciate all of the time you have spent on this topic.

      I was wondering about the example used in the above post; you rewrote the line to clarify it, not correct it. I'm transcribing a lecture and I have run into the same question about how to use the em dash when the speaker changes what she is saying.

      Since I am transcribing instead of writing fiction, I do need to write exactly how people speak, so I went with this:

      “Oh, if only I—you know, if I just ignore it, it’s going to go away.”

      Is this the correct way to use the em dash in this sentence?

      Thank you so much for your time!

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      1. You're right, Megan, it's become a bit of a monster lesson!

        You're in a bit of a unique position since you aren't writing fiction but transcribing natural speech. (Fiction is never 100% true to how people actually speak or behave.)

        My first tip will still be to prioritize clarity, so as long as it's understood, you should be fine. In your example, I would say you could make it a bit clearer that the speaker started saying one sentence, cut off, then started a new sentence by separating the two:

        “Oh, if only I— You know, if I just ignore it, it’s going to go away.”

        I made two very small changes (adding the space and capitalizing the second sentence), but in my opinion this reads a bit more clearly. If the person is trailing off, you could use an ellipsis in place of the em dash, to demonstrate that slower pause. I would still recommend separating the sentences if they are two distinct ones, rather than an aside or the continuation of the same thought.

        Hope that helps!

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    14. How do I punctuate if the dialogue of one character is interrupting the dialogue of another character?

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    15. Hi Anya! I work on subtitles, and clarity is of the utmost importance. There are two issues I keep running into. The first one is whether or not the word following the interruption has to be capitalized. For instance, in the example above, “Oh, if only I— You know, if I just ignore it, it’s going to go away,” you suggested capitalization as a way of introducing clarity. However, it seems to me that the speaker continues the same thought, merely inserting an interjection. I also encounter many examples where the speaker repeats the same word/word combination, e.g.: "That's... that's not true." So, the questions is, to capitalize or not to capitalize?

      The other issue is rendering stammering in writing. I often see linguists do this: "W-W-What did you say?" Is this how you would suggest going about it? I would really appreciate your opinion on these issues.

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      1. My recommendation would be to consider whether someone is starting a new complete thought. If so, start a new sentence (so include a space and capitalize). If not, if they're continuing or rephrasing but not starting anew, then no space and no capitalization, whether you use an em dash or an ellipsis. In some cases, it's a judgment call. Usually if someone is repeating one word or a short phrase, that's the same thought continued.

        In the first example you referenced, it seems as if the speaker is about to say one thing ("If only I [could do something about my problem]"), changes their mind (indicated by the em dash), then starts a completely different thought (thus the space and capitalization). There is no interjection (which would be set off by em dashes on both sides).

        Your usage of hyphens is a common way to indicate stammering in fiction, and for what it's worth, that is also the preference stated in the BBC Subtitle Guidelines, section 13.7 (https://bbc.github.io/subtitle-guidelines). If you're writing for a specific network, they may have their own style guide.

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    16. Hi Anya! I read your article, and I have a question. When writing dialogue, is it okay to state an action after parenthesis like this:

      “Yes.” Pushed from my mouth, and her head shot up.

      "Yes" (Period) and then a capital 'P'?

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      1. Hi Girl Who Writes,

        I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Could you clarify your question, please?

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    17. How would you punctuate a character interrupting themselves? I usually end up formatting it more or less like this:

      "Hang on, that's not fa- wait, did you just say what I think you said?"

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      1. Take a look at my answers to Megan's and Fidgety Linguist's questions.

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    18. This was fantastic. It was exactly what I was looking forward. Thanks.

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    19. Hello!

      Thank you for the information, it was of great help!

      Although, I would still like to ask for some help...
      How exactly would you write a sentence where a character started saying a word but stopped mid-way through, and replaced it with another. All within the same quotation marks.

      Example (how I did it, thinking it was right):

      “What?” Arlo asked quietly, looking at him in confusion.

      “The alie—, the creature’s blood,” Liam answered, “I had no water to wash it off.”

      Is this alright? :/
      If not, please enlighten me haha.

      Thanks in advance!

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      1. Hi David,

        The em dash is considered terminal punctuation, so you wouldn't use a comma after it. Otherwise, it becomes a question of whether the speaker is starting a new "complete" thought (which can of course still be a fragment) or not. Take a look at my answer to Fidgety Linguist as well.

        In the specific example you used, the result could be either option:

        “The alie—the creature’s blood,” Liam answered...
        “The alie— The creature’s blood,” Liam answered...

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    20. I am not sure how to use dashes when a dialogue is interrupted, then followed by someone else talking, and then the original speaker continues. For instance, is this correct:
      "I want you to—"
      "I will do what you ask."
      "—clean the floor."
      What about this one:
      "I want you to—"
      "I will do what you ask."
      "—and you will learn not to interrupt me."
      Also, do dashes that come at the end of a sentence that is not dialogue, follow the same rules as dashes that interrupt dialogue?

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      1. Hi Simon,

        In your first example, that's a fine option. Although without narration, it remains a little ambiguous whether the second and third line are said simultaneously or in sequence, so you have the option of using tags to clarify. Adding a tag to the last line, you could also skip the second em dash entirely, making it:

        "I want you to—"
        "I will do what you ask."
        "Clean the floor," Alex finished, arching an eyebrow at Sam's interruption.

        For your second example, because the third line is an entirely new thought, not a continuation of the original sentence, you would punctuate it as an independent line of dialogue.

        I'm not sure I understand the scope of your last question, but if you're wondering whether em dashes at the end of a sentence are considered terminal punctuation outside of dialogue, they are.

        Delete
    21. What I meant to say about em dashes at the end of a sentence was: must the em dash at the end of a sentence outside of a dialogue have to be closed?
      I.e.: That was the last he was seen—
      Or can it also be written as: That was the last he was seen —

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      1. Clarificaton: by "closed," I mean closed on the left side of the dash (obviously, as a terminal punctuation point, it would be open on its right side).

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      2. That's correct, there would be no space before the terminal em dash, even if the sentence wasn't in dialogue.

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    22. Hello!

      I’m currently trying to write a small comedic piece but I’m not sure how to properly use dashes when it comes to self-interrupting action. What I mean by that is in my piece, my character is basically face palming herself over and over mid-conversation with herself.

      For example:

      She’s trying to tell herself to control herself.

      “Control”—smack—“yourself”—smack. “Control”—smack—“yourself”—smack.

      Is this correct?

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    23. What about dialogue that is constantly interrupted due to the twists and turns and changes of partner in a Regency era country dance. The partners are not pleased with each other. One would prefer not to be there and the other. The other is manipulative. The comments are complete, but the separation comes before the reply. How would I write this in a novel?

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      1. I currently have the word "Separation" like a one-word sentence to indicate the dance has separated them. I have also mentioned that the dance often separates them. I want the conversation to feel stiff and disjointed.

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      2. If the line of dialogue is complete, it would be punctuated the standard way, whether using a comma with a dialogue tag or terminal punctuation (with or without a tag). The separation you are describing would be narrated, though I would caution you against simply using the word separation as if you were writing stage direction. Action beats, internal narration, and even direct thought can all be combined to help create the stilted effect you would like.

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    24. What if the speaker stops speaking because he hesitate to tell the rest of his thought, not because he is interrupted by something or someone? Should we use the em dash or suspension points?

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      1. Either is an acceptable option, even if it's the speaker's hesitation preventing the thought from being completed. If the comment ends abruptly, I'd recommend an em dash; if it trails off as if slowly losing confidence, then an ellipsis.

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    25. Hi Anya,

      This is a great article! If a character's dialogue is interrupted by the first person narrator's internal dialogue, would the following be accurate?

      “Well, it’s really not terrible. We’re looking at twelve hundred for a week—“
      I try to hide my complete astonishment. Does he truly think that’s a reasonable expense?
      “—but the amenities are remarkable considering the cost."

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      1. Hi there,

        Yes, if you absolutely must interrupt dialogue with subjective narration (or direct thought) from someone other than the speaker, that punctuation would work.

        Delete
    26. What happens if the dialogue is an exclamation (!) and is interrupted. Can the word after the article be capitalized and is there only one exclamtion? For example: “Stop! Stop the music! This is—no... stop the music now” she screamed. “And restart!”

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      1. This is an interesting example!

        Consider: "Stop the music!" she screamed.

        Here, we know that the speaker is screaming the words between the quotation marks.

        Or: "Stop the music!" She screamed.

        The capital letter in she makes "She screamed." into its own sentence rather than a dialogue tag. So in this case, there is an exclamation ("Stop the music!") followed by the speaker screaming (think: Aaaaaaaah!).

        So yes, absolutely you can capitalize the pronoun—just be aware of how it changes your meaning.

        If you want "Stop the music now and restart" to be a single sentence of dialogue interrupted by its tag, you would punctuate it like any such line of dialogue:

        "Stop the music now," she screamed, "and restart!"

        Delete
    27. Can I cut off mid-word even if the character isn't actually speaking?
      For example:
      He remembered his wife used to sit in that very seat, back when she was aliv—

      ReplyDelete
    28. How would you punctuate speech that's sort of stuttered and broken?

      I've been using hyphens for in-sentence breaks and em dashes for breaks that occur at the end of lines. Is that right? Or should I use em dashes for both?

      I'm also not certain whether I should be using the em dash at the beginning of the continuation of the interrupted speech as well. In this specific example it's cross-talk—so the first speaker doesn't really stop talking—but I still felt it was the best way to represent that.

      e.g. "I'm- I'm sorry, I just—"
      "Dude, what the hell are you talking about?"
      "—I can't be here."

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. In terms of cross talk, you're using the em dashes correctly at the closing and opening of the interrupted speech.

        For your first question, it becomes a touch more complicated. When someone is stuttering, hyphens are correct, e.g.: "wh-wh-why." When someone's speech is halting or broken, but they're repeating syllables or words (not sounds), the em dash is more appropriate.

        Delete
    29. Hello Anya,

      I'm glad I found your blog. It's quite useful. I have a doubt. How would you punctuate a dialog that is fragmented along a paragraph with multiple actions? Especially when you want to introduce dialog after an action, I've found several sources that are quite contradictory.

      Eg. "Let me think," he said. "When did you last see him?" He started walking in circles while taking a drag off of his cigarette. "I need to know."

      Thank you!

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi Malfriv,

        Jennifer actually covered this in another post! Check it out here.

        The short answer is that your example paragraph is punctuated correctly (assuming all the dialogue is said by the same person).

        Delete
    30. Hi.

      How to place em dashes when an action of one character is set off while the other is speaking without an interruption in their speech?

      For example:

      "You haven't faced—"

      She looked up at him.

      "—the worst yet."

      In this example, it appears to me that the speaker took a break as she looked up (which I don't want to imply).

      Another option could be:

      "You haven't faced," he began and she looked up at him, "the worst yet.

      Is the first example fine or should there be any changes?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Your first example is correct because the paragraph breaks indicate the action is being done by a different character than the one speaking. Remember that if the "she" in question were the speaker, this would be punctuated as per #3 in the post. To clarify further, you could add action beats to either or both of the paragraphs with dialogue. I would recommend using this construction sparingly, but it is correct.

        The good news is that the punctuation in your second example is also correct (aside from the missing quotation mark at the end), though I would recommend as rather than and. If there isn't a compelling reason to have the other character's action interrupt the speaker's dialogue, it would similarly be correct to have:

        "You haven't faced the worst yet," he said as she looked up at him.

        Delete
    31. Dear Anya,
      I hope I am not repeating a previous question. But I am looking for an answer to punctuating dialogue within an action sequence.

      For example:
      As they approached the bottom of the stairs, he pulled back on her hand. “Let me go first.” And stepped in front of her.

      I want to include the dialogue simply as part of the action. It's kind of like setting off dialogue with em dashes for action within dialogue but I am not sure about the reverse.

      Thank you!

      ReplyDelete
    32. What a useful post! I do have one question that doesn't seem to have been addressed here: I set off em dashes with a space before and after -- I'm old, it's the way I was taught to do it -- but I'm not sure what to do at the end of something in quotes. For instance:

      "This place – ” she commented, waving her coffeecup at nothing in particular, “ – is more a haven for people who have run out of other places to go.”

      Keep both spaces, fore and aft, or lose the space that adjoins the quotation marks?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. It's tough to answer a question when you seem to say preemptively that you don't want the real answer, which is: no spaces, no matter what you were taught before.

        Style guides do evolve with time (and technology). For example, you may have been taught to add two spaces after a period. Now, you should only use one. If you do not want to change how you do it, a copy editor could do it for you.

        Separately, note that you would not use em dashes at all in your current example; you would punctuate with commas, as in #1 in the post.

        Delete
    33. Could you please explain how to punctuate this correctly? My mind has drawn a blank.


      “Oh hey! I didn’t know you guys were here… Is-”, but before Will could finish, he was sucker-punched from behind.

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi KatScratch,

        Take a look at example 2B in the post.

        Delete
    34. Love the thread! It's been super helpful.

      In first person monologue, how would the character interrupt themselves?

      I'm unsure which would be correct:
      Why would he–Oh! That looks like a nasty fall.
      Why would he– Oh! That looks like a nasty fall.

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Glad you've found the post and comments useful!

        If you're capitalizing the second sentence (or fragment), then use the space after an em dash: "Why would he— Oh! That looks like a nasty fall."

        However, you could also keep that oh lowercase and not add the space: "Why would he—oh!" It's the tiniest difference in how it reads, but either option is fine.

        Delete
    35. Hi!

      I'm not quite sure how to phrase this, but I'm writing a mock example for a Tumblr post and therein decided to learn how to properly use the em-dash for the post.

      Anyway!

      Say Person A is rambling about something and Person B interjects with their own line of thought/asks a question. Then, Person A answers that question but continues their original ramble/whatever they were saying before in the same sentence. Like, they answered Person B in an absent minded manner and continued with what they were saying—how would that work?

      My example doesn't include dialogue tags or context—just dialogue—primarily because it's something like...

      Person A: "*insert text*"
      Person B: "*insert text*"
      Person A: "*insert text*"

      So I'm mainly asking for an example that provides how the dialogue would be writing if possible. Thank you!

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Oh! And too elaborate it'd be like...

        Person A: "What's your favourite colour? Mine's purple. Did you know that—
        Person B: "Mine's blue."
        Person A: "Okay cool! —that there's a type of cauliflower that's purple? Like purple cauliflower? How cool is that!?"

        Something along those lines ahh. I've tried multiple different ways to punctuate it but I just can't figure it out.

        Delete
      2. This is an interesting one! I agree that your sample isn't a great option, as it looks messy and unclear. (I'm assuming the lack of quotation marks to close the first line of dialogue was a simple typo.)

        In terms of clarity, I would perhaps recommend:

        "What's your favorite color? Mine's purple. Did you know—"
        "Mine's blue."
        "Okay, cool! There's a type of cauliflower that's purple. Like, purple cauliflower?"

        It does change up the pacing somewhat, but you still get the sense that speaker A is rambling on a bit.

        Alternatively:

        "Mine's purple. Did you know—"
        "Mine's blue."
        "—that there's—okay, cool!—a type of cauliflower that's purple?"

        It's still quite messy, and it wouldn't be my first choice, but this way you show that speaker A kept talking while speaker B answered, and then speaker A interrupted themselves to respond.

        For me, though, there would have to be an extremely good reason why narration couldn't be used to clarify in place of this kind of awkward punctuation.

        Delete
    36. Hey Anya!

      I wanted to ask how you would punctuate cuttofs when a character is jumbling up their words or cutting themselves off? Currently, I'm writing it like this: “Wh—how—did you—is that a bear?” her voice was hushed, though breathy, like she was prepared to scream but didn't.

      I'm not sure if I phrased this correctly, I could not find an answer elsewhere. Would the em dashes be correct here?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Your use of em dashes is certainly an option, though you'd want to remember to capitalize the Her, since your sentence after the dialogue is not a dialogue tag.

        I wouldn't recommend using too long a string of words or partial phrases with em dashes like this, or to do this too often, but it does work. For clarity, you may want to split up the partial thoughts and the complete one, by capitalizing the complete one and adding a space before it. So it would be: "Wh—how—did you— Is that a bear?"

        Or you could play around with the punctuation, depending on your aim. For example: "Wh—how..? Did you— Is that a bear?" This reads quite differently, in terms of the pacing it suggests to the reader, but you do have many options for avoiding a long string of em dashes.

        Delete
    37. I am thinking punctuation would be different if there is a pause in the dialogue versus no pause:

      (no pause) “I’ll take that one”—she pointed—“and that one, and that one, too.”
      (pause) "Sometimes a fire can—"The inspector gave an apologetic glance to the grieving widow"—reduce a body to ash."

      where the dashes above are em-dashes.

      Is this correct?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hello Tom,

        Your first example is correct. Your second isn't. You could make an argument for:

        "Sometimes a fire can—" The inspector gave an apologetic glance to the grieving widow. "—reduce a body to ash."

        In this case, the first em dash signifies that the sentence is cut off, and the second shows that the second piece of dialogue is starting in the middle of a sentence. The two pieces of dialogue would need to be separated by a full sentence (or several), thus the addition of the spaces and the period.

        However, readers often read quickly, and they don't consider the technical arguments surrounding punctuation, so I wouldn't recommend going this route. There isn't a prescribed answer to whether the narrated aside punctuated with em dashes happens along with the words or as a distinct interruption, or something a bit in between.

        The good news is you can absolutely clarify this in other ways if you'd like to emphasize the pause or that the gesture is happening simultaneously. For example:

        "I'll take that one," she said, pointing, "and that one, and that one, too."

        "Sometimes a fire can—" The inspector shot an apologetic glance to the widow before finishing, "Reduce a body to ash."

        Remember, clarity for the reader is key. You don't want them pausing to figure out whether your punctuation is arguably correct.

        Delete
    38. Hi, I'm having trouble finding info about multiple interruptions in dialogue. For example, if someone is talking while doing something, can you interrupt more than once?
      The following is an example:
      "Darling, are you alright?" she asked, embracing her daughter. "What's wrong?" Nila buried her face in her mother's breasts, sobbing. "Have you been beaten again?" The girl didn't answer. Her sisters shrugged in response to their mother's look. "Oh, my spirited child."

      I know I'm doing something wrong but I don't know what. It's the same speaker throughout but should I be starting new paragraphs? Yikes. I appreciate any help. :)

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi Jacy,

        You can certainly start new paragraphs to break up the tex, even though it's the same speaker. But of course you can interject narration as many times as you would like (so long as it's having the effect you intend and not frustrating/confusing readers).

        In general, it can be helpful to add paragraph breaks when the main subject of the sentence changes away from the speaker. So in this case:

        "Darling, are you alright?" she asked, embracing her daughter. "What's wrong?"

        Nila buried her face in her mother's breasts, sobbing.

        "Have you been beaten again?"

        The girl didn't answer. Her sisters shrugged in response to their mother's look.

        "Oh, my spirited child."

        Delete
    39. Hi, my question is with regards to punctuating unfinished words or trailed off words. Ex.: "Wai... Wait."

      Here, should I be using ellipses in the first place, or an em dash would suffice? Secondly, if ellipses make do, how should I be stylizing it in this instance (without a space after the unfinished word?)

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Adding to the query, I noticed you answering to a question above: ... 'Wh—how..? Did you— Is that a bear?' .... Is the two dots followed by a question mark a typo? If not how did you structure it?

        Delete
      2. If you're interrupting mid-word, an em dash is usually the way to go.

        As for the question mark following an ellipsis, you're right, that was a typo—nice catch! It should be an ellipsis followed by a question mark, without a space in between.

        Delete
    40. Thanks for the post. How do you punctuate someone telling information but the reader can't hear all of the words. Example: A woman in another group leaned toward her two companions. “ . . . in the secrete alcove . . . untiled her kirtle exposing her . . . kissed her hands . . . took shallow breaths.”
      Should these be em dashes rather than ellipses?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Ellipses work well for this! If in some cases words cut off in the middle, you could add variety with em dashes, but it's perfectly correct to use ellipses to indicate portions of dialogue are being omitted from the narrating character's POV.

        Delete
    41. Hi Anya!

      Are you able to let me know if I have got your ideas down correctly?

      “Where do I even start with him? I’m so scared he won’t like me, or th-that he’ll be disappointed in me. I mean, I mean, look at him! He’s him, and I’m” -he gestured his hands wildly around his face- “I’m just me. Just some wannabe from halfway across the world. An anxious, awkward, ordinary kid. How could I ever hope to meet his expectations?”

      Thanks for your time!

      ReplyDelete
    42. I use dashes with spaces for all other cases, but feel that, for interrupted speech, the dash is just begging to be glued to the last word. This gives me a feeling of betraying my own style, though. Any thoughts? Even as I'm writing this, I think I'm already accepting that I'll stop using the spaces altogether, but I guess I'm asking whether I can have both ways coexist, or there can be a space between the last word of the interrupted sentence and the dash.

      ReplyDelete