The inverted comma

In written English the inverted comma is used for dialogue. Avoid the mistake of placing punctuation in the wrong place when describing speech, as in this common mistake:

  • Hopkins said, “intelligence suggests the report was curtailed because of an on-board explosion”.

In this example the last full stop is in the wrong place. The full stop must sit inside the quote. And, when reporting speech, the first word should be in initial capitals (Intelligence). Thus:

  • Hopkins said, “Intelligence suggests the report was curtailed because of an on-board explosion.”

When working out how to punctuate something being said by a person, first write it out without the quotes. For example:

  • Peam looked at him askance, and asked, don’t you know anything about the agency, Hopkins? Renbaum was a research and development station. It observed, it monitored, and it recorded. It operated traffic control, knew every ship movement, cargo, size of crew, medical status and so on. Now, what does that tell you?

Next you capitalise the first word he speaks (don’t), then put quotes around the outside of what he said. Thus:

  • Peam looked at him askance, and asked, “Don’t you know anything about the agency, Hopkins? Renbaum was a research and development station. It observed, it monitored, and it recorded. It operated traffic control, knew every ship movement, cargo, size of crew, medical status and so on. Now, what does that tell you?”Reading to Children

Just one final point here. The inverted comma can either be single or double: ‘ or “ — it’s your choice. But once you have decided stick to the same style. Where someone is speaking and they in turn quote something, then use the opposite. Consider this example where the writer prefers using the single quote form when describing speech. When the character, Deevon, mentions “refugees”, it is encapsulated in double quotes because he is quoting from someone else:

Smearson gave a helpless gesture. ‘That’s amazing.’

‘No, it’s not amazing, it’s terrible,’ Deevon returned crossly. ‘And only an expert can tell the difference.’

‘And you think Perlov has something to do with it?’

‘I am pretty sure of it. Ruehler has been grilling that idiot Trypp Bull about it. But I think he was just an unwitting pawn. He did mention something about “refugees”, claiming he had nothing to do with them. Damn fool. He was authorised to trade in goods, not people.’

Smearson nodded vaguely, emptied his glass.

From The Sands of Rotar by Nigel Benetton.

And just one more example, where the character is quoting a report in which it said the mine concession was handed over as “an act of good will”.:

‘Argyre? I thought that was a closed facility?’

She nodded. ‘Yes. But a Tircon outfit took it over. It was handed to them as “an act of good will”, and the plan was to mine the harder-to-extract pyro martis deposits. It’s normally a plain white powder,’ she reminded him. ‘Anyway the assayers seemed to think it was safe. Bio signatures are nil, and no detectable toxicity. But it needs deeper analysis. At the very least the manifest is, well…’ She let her voice trail off.

From Red Moon by Nigel Benetton.

In the following example the author prefers double quotes as his default for speech. So a quote from a third party goes in single quotes:

  • Geoffrey said, “Shakespeare’s words ‘to be or not to be’ are probably the most famous in the world.”

Some writers use the colon after the unspoken part at the beginning. For example:

  • Peter said: “I need assistance with this book. It won’t take long.”

But I don’t like this style. I almost always use the comma, unless the person’s dialogue amounts to: a list; a statement; a quote from some source; to conform to the colon rule; or to relate the unspoken part at the end.

[For examples, please go to the section under colon].

Quoting at the end of a sentence:

When you quote from a source and end the sentence immediately after, then the full stop goes outside the quote!

  • It is true to say that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”.

Here the full stop is outside the inverted commas because the sentence has not been written in direct speech. The part in inverted commas is merely a quotation of what someone else has said or written elsewhere.

Scare quote

A scare quote is in double quotes (if the writer is using single quotes for normal speech, and vice versa) and infers scepticism, that is, a claim that is alleged but probably not true:

  • ‘Frank said the problem was “easy” to solve. Do me a favour. He doesn’t have the brains to solve anything let alone understand he’s dealing with something complex.’
Direct v Indirect Speech

Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech. (It is also referred to as free indirect discourse, or free indirect style). Free indirect discourse can also be described, as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author”, or, in the words of the French narrative theorist Gerard Genette, “the narrator takes on the speech of the character, or, if one prefers, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances then are merged.”

Examples

  • Quoted or direct speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Monday, 13th January 2020