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.

Reported 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 a business was to be their own boss.

Union representatives expressed their satisfaction at the news that there would be no job losses.

Direct speech

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 quotation marks. In American English, the rule is to use double quotation marks:

"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.

"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 opening quotation marks:

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 point) to end the first piece of speech and a period or another comma before the second piece (before the quotation marks):

"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!"


Back to Punctuation.

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