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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 all of these instances a new sentence starts after the closed quotation mark, so of course the first word needs to be capitalized.
  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!

    24 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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