Punctuation of direct speech

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The rules for the punctuation of the direct form of reported speech are fairly simple. They can be hard to use carefully and accurately. This is an area where the house rules of different publishers, editors and academic departments can vary a lot. AWE aims only to give general guidance and some principles, so you are advised to check on any guidance you have been given by your own authority before following our guidance with slavish attention to the details we give here.

There are two parts of sentences reporting direct speech: there are reporting clauses, like 'he said'; and the actual words of the speaker, as recorded by the writer. (This is the reported speech, properly so called.)

  • The actual words of the speaker are marked as quotations by being placed between inverted commas, and the two parts of the sentence are usually separated by a punctuation mark, traditionally a comma. . This is placed before the next inverted comma.
  • The first letter of the speech being reported is a CAPITAL (upper case) letter, even after a comma; the first letter of the reporting clause is only a capital if it comes after a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark (or if the first word is a proper noun, like the speaker's name). A simple example:
He said, "Good morning!"
"It's a lovely day," she replied.

Some writers do not use a comma between the reporting clause and the speech reported, as in He said "Good morning!"; some have borrowed the French practice of using a dash instead: "It's a lovely day -" she replied.

  • When the reporting clause interrupts the reported speech, there is always a comma before the reporting clause. The punctuation mark after it is governed by the speech. If the reporting clause comes between two separate sentences of the speech, then the latter is closd by a full stop. If the reporting clause breaks a sentence of the speech, then it is a comma - and the first letter of the resumed speech is in lower case, as in
"I think," he said, "that it's going to be a fine day for the match." (This is one sentence broken by the reporting clause.)
"I don't," she protested. "There are black clouds already: it looks like rain to me." (She uttered two sentences..)
  • There should be a new paragraph whenever there is a change of speaker.
  • Punctuation marks that belong to the speech, such as question marks because the speaker is asking a question, should be inside the speech marks. If the reporter asks a question, then the question mark is outside the speech marks:
"Do you think so?" he asked.
Had I heard her right when she said "I want to go now"?
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