Dialogue in Essays

Quoting information You may have already learned that whenever you quote any sources -- that is, when you write the exact same words they said (or wrote) -- you indicate that fact by putting quotation marks on either side of the quote.  If you were paying attention in school, you might have even figured out that the end punctuation goes INSIDE the end quotes. 

Here are some examples:

Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out, "Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average." Notice the period is inside the end quotes.  There are no spaces before the period or before the end quote marks.

According to Peggy McIntosh, "White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions." Notice the period is inside the end quotes.

"The Oscar-winning best picture is, in fact, a setback in the crucial project of forcing white America to come to terms the reality of race and racism, white supremacy and white privilege," wrote Robert Jensen and Robert Wosnitzer.    Notice the comma (the end of the quoted sentence) is inside the end quotes.

It's fairly easy to pull whole sentences out of books and articles and use them in what you write (making sure you cite the source, of course).  In fact, it's easier to do that than to write your own words.  But if that's all you do, you are not writing an essay.  It's more like a report on what other people think.  Remember, an essay is to be YOUR gold. 

Sure, you can use other people's information to support your point, but it's best to paraphrase it, to say it in your own words.  Quoting from written material is a little like cutting and pasting and your teacher may wonder if you even read it!  Paraphrasing proves you read and understood it and now are using it for your own purpose.

Does this mean you don't have to say where you got the information?  Dream on.  If there's ANYTHING that comes from any other place than your own mind, you have to say where you got it, no matter if you quote or paraphrase.  Otherwise, it's plagiarism.

There is one other situation where you will use quotes -- extensively -- in your essays:  writing dialogues to liven up anecdotes. 

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Dialogue  
Here is a short anecdote with paraphrased speech:

On our date, we went to an ice-cream shop and enjoyed our dessert before we went to eat dinner at a Chinese food restaurant.  I told Aaron that I had never eaten dessert before dinner.  He said that life was too short and we should enjoy ourselves like we were kids, especially now that we are adults.

Here is the same anecdote with quoted speech:

On our date, we went to an ice-cream shop and enjoyed our dessert before we went to eat dinner at a Chinese food restaurant.  "I've never eaten dessert before dinner!" I said.

"Life is too short," Aaron replied.  "Let's enjoy ourselves like we're kids.  Especially now that we're adults."

Which one sounded more real, more alive?

Remember that when you use quotes like that, you have to use the exact same words that the speaker used.

If your mother said she (meaning your mother) was hungry, you wouldn't quote her like this:  She said, "She was hungry."  You would use the words she used.  She said, "I'm hungry."

 
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Paragraphing The rules for paragraphing in dialogue is quite different from any other rules for paragraphing.  Basically, when you have two people talking back and forth, every time there is a change of speaker, you must start a new paragraph.  Even when what they say is very short.  
 
Here is a dialogue of my kids arguing:

"You ate all my cake!" Shelli said.

"Did not," Boone responded.

"Did, too."

"Did not."

"Un-huh."

"Un-unh."

Six paragraphs there.  You might have noticed, too, that in the earlier anecdote I put what Aaron had said in a new paragraph, separate from what I had said.
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Punctuating spoken words Sometimes punctuating people's speech is hard.  You may have all their words, but then you have to decide whether what they said is a run-on or two short sentences, where there are pauses, whether their voice rises or falls, etc.  The grammatical punctuation rules don't apply to speech.  You can have fragments, run-ons, whatever.  The purpose of the punctuation here is to indicate how the words were spoken.

"You ate?"  Even though the sentence structure looks like a statement, the question mark tells us the speaker raised her voice at the end, indicating a question.

"What the -- ?  Help!"  "What the -- help!"  Two ways to write the same thing.  Which is different from "What the . . .?  Help."

 
Said tags Once you have the quote and how to punctuate the insides of it, then you need to indicate who said it, at least the first time the person speaks.  Said tags are included in the outer sentence that contains the quotation as an inner sentence.  They are separated from the quote by a comma.

When the dialogue ball bounces back and forth like a ping-pong match, people get tired of writing he said, or she said.  Also, they're afraid the "saids" will become redundant.

If only two people are talking, you can drop the said tags once you've established who started and who responded, like I did in the argument between my kids.  After that, the reader knows who said what by the new paragraph.  If you're afraid the reader will lose who's speaking, though, and especially when there's more than two people, go ahead and put said tags.

Afraid of redundancy, beginning writers tend to use "said bookisms," words that can be used instead of "said" but are not as common.  He murmured.  She screamed.  He growled.  She cried.

One problem with "said bookisms" is they draw the reader's attention to themselves because they are unusual.  So rather than being involved in the story, the reader gets pulled out of it to notice the words.  The word "said" doesn't get noticed.  It's transparent.  And often, the situation, the words, or the actions convey how the words were spoken much better than the said bookism.

Eh. "Come with me," he murmured as he caressed her shoulder.  
Good. "Come with me," he said as he caressed her shoulder.  
Better. "Come with me."  He caressed her shoulder.  (The fact that the action he did is within the same paragraph with the quote says that he also said the quote.  We don't need to say he said it.)

 

Eh. "I hate you!" she screamed and threw a plate at him.
Good. "I hate you!" she said and threw a plate at him.
Better. "I hate you!"  She threw a plate at him.

Another problem is when the writer gets a bit too creative, using unspeakable action as a said bookism. 

  • "The world is wonderful," she smiled.  How can you smile words?
  • "Boy, this food is good," he belched.  Oh, okay.  My husband and his brothers have proven to me that it is possible to belch words (they have a contest to belch the alphabet) but I don't think that's what the writer really meant here.
  • "That looks awful," my son grimaced.
  • He nodded, "You're right."
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Punctuating quotes The solution to the above problem is to fully separate the action from the quote, making them two sentences.  They would work like this:
  • "The world is wonderful."  She smiled.
  • "Boy, this food is good."  He belched.
  • "That looks awful."  My son grimaced.
  • He nodded.  "You're right."

First rule of punctuation for a quote from spoken words is to make the quote itself like a whole sentence.  You'll begin the first word of the quote with a capital letter (after, of course, the beginning quote marks).  In most cases, you'll put a period at the end of it (inside the end quote marks).

Punctuation gets tricky depending on the location of the said tag.  Quotations may begin with the said tag, be interrupted by the said tag which falls in the middle, or end with the said tag.  Be sure that the said tag is always OUTSIDE of the quote marks.  This means when the said tag is in the middle, you have to put END quote marks before the said tag, and then put the beginning quote marks again after the said tag (see the table below.)

Generally, it's a bad idea to put a said tag in the middle of a short one-sentence quote.  The said tag tends to force a pause in the spoken sentence.  But then, you may want that sort of pause.  Usually, however, said tags fall into the middle only when there's a long quote you want to break up, maybe one that includes two or more sentences.

One-sentence Quotes

Before

Middle

End

She said, "The world is wonderful." "The world," she said, "is wonderful." "The world is wonderful," she said.
He said, "Boy, this food is good." "Boy," he said, "this food is good." "Boy, this food is good," he said.
My son said, "That looks awful." "That," my son said, "looks awful." "That looks awful," my son said.
Notice that wherever the said tag happens, it's separated from the quote by a comma (or, in the case of the middle occurrence, two commas).   In the cases above, what would have been a period to end the quotation turns into a comma. 
She asked, "What time is it?" "What time," she asked, "is it?" "What time is it?" she asked.  The question mark trumps a comma.

 

Multiple-sentence Quotes

Before

Middle

End

The Dread Pirate Roberts said, "Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone telling you different is selling something."* "Life is pain, Highness," the Dread Pirate Roberts said.  "Anyone telling you different is selling something." "Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone telling you different is selling something," the Dread Pirate Roberts said.
  Notice how the said tag in the middle of this one ENDS the first sentence.  Then the rest of the quote continues as a separate sentence.  

*Quote from The Princess Bride.

 A good way to practice writing dialogue is to choose a scene from a favorite movie and write down what each character says.  Then turn it into an anecdote, complete with action, paragraphing to show new speaker and quotes.

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This page last updated, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.