Lorraine Mace gives some punctuation and grammar tips in response to readers’ queries.
Niall from Luton gets confused about quote marks and asked for some advice: I see some people use quote marks like these ‘ ’ and others use the ones that look like this “ ”. How can I find out which ones to use and does it matter?
As you’ve shown in your email, there are two different types of quotation marks: single and double. Double quotation marks are now used less than they were in the past, but some magazines and publishers still favour them over the single marks.
The best way to decide which to use is to check the house style of your target market to see which they prefer. If you’re planning to approach a magazine, finding out which they use is as simple as opening a recent copy and looking at the content.
However, if you are planning to submit a manuscript to a publisher or agent, very often they will have their desired formatting style on the submissions pages of their websites. If the guidelines don’t stipulate one or the other, I would simply use the style with which you feel most comfortable.
Do bear in mind that whichever marks you use for direct speech, you would then use the opposite quotation marks to quote 'speech within speech'.
‘I’m praying Jack hasn’t started drinking again. When he left this morning he said, “I’m going to the supermarket.” That was hours ago and he should have returned by now.’
The double quotation marks show that someone is being quoted word for word. If you use double quotation marks for the main speech, use singles for the ‘speech within speech’.
Other uses for quotation marks:
Idiomatic expressions, for example: He was always referred to as a ‘pain in the neck’. Note that when quotation marks are used in this manner the full stop or comma comes outside the marks, but if quotation marks are used for dialogue the full stop or comma comes inside the marks.
When quoting the title of a magazine article: ‘The Generation Game’ in Spanish Magazine, March 2007.
(The above answer was partly taken from The Writer’s ABC Checklist)
Michaela from Huddersfield has sent in an interesting question about using natural sounding speech: I recently had a short story critiqued and the person who commented on my writing said I was making a mistake when I wrote my character was sat at the bar. I don’t see what’s wrong with that – it’s how the character speaks. In fact, he didn’t pick up on almost the same words in dialogue, so I’m now even more confused.
This is a case of narrative versus dialogue grammar usage. In dialogue, we can use all sorts of incorrect grammar, because it is, as you pointed out, how the characters speak. However, in narrative (where no one is speaking) using exactly the same construction would, in most cases, be incorrect.
I’ll use your query term in the following example.
Dan sighed. “I don’t know why Jane got so upset. I was sat at the bar minding my own business and her mate came on to me. I didn’t start it.”
In the above paragraph, it’s fine to say I was sat because it is in direct speech and is in keeping with Dan’s character.
However, if we change things around a bit, so that we only have narrative, we cannot use the same construction because it is grammatically incorrect. We can only use Dan was sitting or Dan sat.
Dan was sitting at the bar…
Dan sat at the bar…
To summarise: in dialogue you can use incorrect grammar, as long as it is in keeping with the way the character would speak, but in narrative you have to ensure the grammar is correct.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and a competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.
Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, was published in the USA on 2nd April 2014.
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of the crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes and Call It Pretending
The fourth in the series, Looking for a Reason, was released by Crooked Cat Publishing on 28th October.