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Friday, February 8, 2008

Wanna Discard Perfectly Good Punctuation Just 'Cause It's Dialogue?

My question . . is about punctuation in dialogue.

In my real life critique group, one member commented about a paragraph of dialogue I had. The paragraph contained a semicolon, correctly used for prose. However, this member’s point was that we should not use semicolon, colons and the like in dialogue, because we don’t actually use them when we speak. He believes they throw the reader out. When someone talks, you can hear their voice go up on a comma, you can hear the question mark intonation etc. But you certainly can’t “hear” a colon.

Susan Stephenson, editor of Musings at The Muse Marquee (


Susan, like so many other things, a rule like this is never firm. Basically, you want dialogue to feel as real as possible. Thus, when you write dialogue you don't always use complete sentences. Characters might occasionally repeat themselves or not finish a sentence or stutter. So semicolons may seem too formal or attract attention from a natural speech pattern.

Though I agree--in general-- with your critique group partner, you might find times when punctuating dialogue with a semicolon would work in your favor.
What if a character is an academic and talks like he writes? Semicolons might still be iffy but they might help make a point about the stiffness of this particular character's speech. MIGHT. You could try it and run it by some fellow writers and readers. Ask them if their use takes them out of the dialogue or contributes to their understanding of who this character is, how that might be reflected in what he says and how he says it.

BTW, people may want to know about Tom Chiarella's Writing Dialogue. It is published by Writers' Digest. I loved that book. This may be the only point on dialogue he didn't cover, Susan! (-:

The other point he didn't cover is in Stephen King's On Writing. Go find the referral to it in The Frugal Editor or King's book. You'll find other great learning in the searching process. Ha!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success on Amazon. Learn more about her other authors' aids at


Peaceful Compassion of the Source said...

I tend to skirt the issue of semicolons and colons by not using them at all. However, if you have that stiff academic voice to deal with, I can see why using them might be helpful. I just don't want to put the brakes on the dialogue that much.

I work with an academic who has a very precise way of speaking but he is saved from stiffness by being in theater and knowing more about dialogue than I will ever learn.

Listen to people in restaurants, people you have the opportunity to eavedrop on in other places (with kindness, of course) and you will see how dialogue can be both exciting and challenging to write.

~ Mindy

Susan Stephenson said...

Thanks Carolyn. I guess the jury is still out but my instinct is that it may distract attention for some readers. So I'll probably leave it out in future. I thought Mindy made a good point about eavesdropping. However, it's important to remember that written dialogue must not emulate real life speech exactly.


Peaceful Compassion of the Source said...

However, it's important to remember that written dialogue must not emulate real life speech exactly.

I fully agree with Susan on this point. NO ONE wants to read a book with a bunch of ugh's and oh's in it. However, by eavesdropping, you can develop the rhythm and "flavor" in a character's conversation.

Also, to add to the discussion, I asked my former English professor, Dr. Dan Skelton, author of three novels and an award-winning play director, what his thoughts were on writing dialogue. This was his answer:

"Know your characters and never have them speak untrue to their natures. Write dialogue of disagreement more than agreement."

I think that's pretty good advice.

~ Mindy

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