“I don’t understand how to punctuate dialogue,” Bob confessed.
“Let me explain it to you,” Sue offered.
“But where do we begin? I do everything wrong!”
Sue wanted to smack Bob. He was such a whiner, but then she remembered that punctuating dialogue was something she had to look up once upon a time as well, so she patted his hand and set to teaching. “Let us begin with the noble comma,” she said. “See how I just put a comma at the end of what I was saying inside the quotation marks, because I wasn’t done with the sentence?”
“What?” Bob asked, scratching his head.
“I was speaking, but when I finished speaking, the sentence wasn’t finished, because I added ‘she said’ after the close quote.”
“Oh. Is that why you put a comma before the close quote?”
“Precisely!” Sue answered, thrilled Bob seemed to be picking this up quickly.
“But what about question marks?” asked Bob.
“You mean like what you just did there?”
“I don’t know,” Bob responded, confused. “Is that what I just did?”
“When what you’re saying is a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation.”
“But what if it’s not the end of the sentence, and you’re going to add, ‘she said’ afterward? Didn’t you say I needed a comma before the quotation marks if you aren’t done with the sentence, like when you add an attribution?” asked Bob.
“If your statement is complete, and is a question or an exclamation, you need the punctuation to show that as part of the quotation. No comma is necessary!” exclaimed Sue.
“Is that everything?” Bob queried.
“That’s never everything when it comes to punctuation,” said Sue, “but those are the things that come up most often.”
“Wait. Why didn’t you capitalize ‘but,’ and why a comma before it?”
“Because it’s all part of the same sentence and the parts need connected by commas, but you don’t capitalize after a comma. Putting a quotation mark there doesn’t change that.”
“So does that also go for putting the attribution at the start of the sentence instead of the end?”
Sue smiled, and said, “Exactly! A comma before the open quote following the attribution. Well done, Bob.”
“Since I’m doing so well, do you want to tell me the other rules?”
“Well, here are a couple rules you won’t see much, but it can’t hurt to mention. If you have a colon or semicolon, those punctuation marks always go outside the quotation marks.”
“Because my high school English teacher told me so. Some of the rules are pretty arbitrary, and even differ between American and British usage.”
“Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me the British way now, too. I don’t need that confusion,” Bob pleaded.
“Fair enough,” Sue smiled, agreeing it could all start to blend. “One rule that does make sense is that every now and then, you do put question marks and exclamation points outside the quotes.”
“Why would I do that?”
“If the quote is not the exclamation or the question, but the entire sentence is, put the punctuation outside the quotation mark to show that it applies to the entire sentence.”
“That…makes a startling amount of sense considering it’s a grammar rule. Sort of like if I’m quoting you, and I say that you said, ‘My high school English teacher told me so’?”
“Exactly right.” Sue giggled. (Which was a complete thought in this case, not an attribution, so she used periods instead of commas inside the close quote and before the open quote.) “Sometimes it works out. Is that enough for today?”
Bob sighed. “I guess so. Thanks for explaining.”
“My pleasure!” Sue said, as she skipped away.