Punctuation in direct speech
In reports and stories, a writer often wants to tell the reader what someone has said. There are two ways of doing this. The speaker’s words can either be reported (in a style known as reported speech), or they can be quoted directly in what’s called direct speech.
In reported speech, the actual words are not usually quoted directly. Usually, they are summarized or paraphrased and there are no special punctuation issues to take into account:
The 180 respondents said that the main reason for setting up in business was to be their own boss.
Trade union representatives expressed their satisfaction at the news that there would be no job losses.
In direct speech, various punctuation conventions are used to separate the quoted words from the rest of the text: this allows a reader to follow what’s going on. Here are the basic rules:
- The words that are actually spoken should be enclosed in inverted commas:
‘He’s very clever, you know.’
In British English, the usual style is to use single inverted commas but it is not wrong to use double ones:
“He’s very clever, you know.”
- Every time a new speaker says something, you should start a new paragraph:
‘They think it’s a more respectable job,’ said Jo.
‘I don’t agree,’ I replied.
- There should be a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark at the end of a piece of speech. This is placed inside the closing inverted comma or commas.
‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
‘Just a moment!’ she shouted.
‘You’re right,’ he said.
'I didn't expect to win.'
- If direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you should use a comma to introduce the piece of speech, placed before the first inverted comma:
Steve replied, ‘No problem.’
- If the direct speech is broken up by information about who is speaking, you need a comma (or a question mark or exclamation mark) to end the first piece of speech and a full stop or another comma before the second piece (before the inverted comma or commas):
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘It feels strange.’
‘Thinking back,’ she said, ‘he didn’t expect to win.’
‘No!’ he cried. ‘You can’t leave now!’