A Change of Punctuation

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 15 2008

I recently received the following question from a reader and it made me think of the style in which we write:

My question is about the dialogue dash. I love it. I write historical fiction, and I love the way the dialogue dash (instead of quotation marks) gives the speech a ‘foreign language’ nuance. Quotes seem too contemporary for the speech in my novel. I loved the effect in Cold Mountain and Cry, the Beloved Country.

I wonder, though, if it’s annoying to the reader, or worse—to the agent or editor! Would you reject a “dialogue dash” manuscript out of hand? Do you consider its use to be a barrier? I think my attributions are clear, even with the dash.

Not trying to be a “look at me; I use dashes” kind of writer. But putting my dialogue in quotes just makes it feel . . . different.

What do you think?

I think you should stick with quotation marks.

When we write we like to think that our voice stands out and makes our writing distinctive and many times I see authors try to add other things into their books, different styles of punctuation, art, etc., to make the book unique and different. However, what it comes down to is voice. You can can dress things up all you want, add shiny baubles and glitter, but in the end it’s the voice that’s going to truly matter. My suggestion here is that you should stick with traditional quotation marks. In fact, you should stick with traditional grammar style a la Chicago Manual of Style as much as possible. Once the book sells this is a discussion to be had with your editor. Converting quotation marks to a dialogue dash is easy enough and will come down to a matter of design, not so much writing style.

Part of getting the sense that an author can write is knowing the author has an understanding of basic writing skills. Now, I don’t expect any of you to be perfect. If you’ve read enough blog posts you should know that I am not a perfect grammarian in any sense of the word, but I also don’t want to read and discover that you have no idea where to place an apostrophe, not a clue about where to place dialogue or how to properly format it, or no sense of exclamation point usage (rare, by the way). Grammar is there to make reading easy and comfortable for us. When we see a quotation mark we know someone is talking. When we see a paragraph break in quotations we know someone new is talking. Simple, easy, and understandable. When trying to woo an agent or editor, keep it as simple and easy as possible.

I’d like to hear from readers though. Are you traditionalists or do you also think techniques like dialogue dashes make a difference in tone?


48 responses to “A Change of Punctuation”

  1. In life, I’ve learned to pick my battles carefully. Writing with an eye to publication while trying to buck the Chicago Manual of Style is not one I’m prepared to fight. As you say, that’s a discussion to be held with an editor after the manuscript is a long way into its journey. Although I rail against some of writing’s “rules” I can see that this one makes sense.
    Thanks for your insight.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with Jessica. I think incorrect punctuation distracts from the prose.

    My other pet peeve is too many incomplete sentences. I admit I do use an occasional sentence fragment, but they are like the exclamation point. If you use too many, they lessen the impact and interrupt the flow of the prose.

  3. For the love of all that is holy, stick with traditional punctuation.

    I absolutely detest the free spirits who must forge brave new writing styles. If repetition of words and/or descriptions, punctuation, lack of punctuation, overuse of obscure words, (I go to the dictionary five times to look up words, after that I stop reading) and various other techniques draw me out of the story, I am not reading, nor buying, another of your books.

    Don’t give me an excuse to be jolted out of your world. There are too many writers out there who will draw me into their universe and do everything possible to seduce me into staying longer. Don’t toss me out on my ear just so you can prove how irresistible you are.

    If you have to make a fashion statement, do it with your clothes. At least I don’t have to pay for those.

  4. Avatar Margay says:

    I guess I’m a traditionalist because I prefer quotation marks with my dialogue. I think a dash would be too distracting, as it would make me work harder to figure out what is exposition and what is dialogue. I don’t want to work that hard when I’m reading for pleasure. Personally, I think the dash is a lazy way of punctuating and is kind of ugly on the page. I love my quotation marks!

  5. Avatar Chessie says:

    I’m with you on this one, Jessica.

    Go with the quotation marks. If my eyes don’t see something familiar on the page, I get tired while reading.

  6. Avatar Kryianna says:

    What in the world is a dialogue dash?

    • Avatar Basil Valentine says:

      Here’s an example of the usage of dialogue dashes from William Gaddis’s THE RECOGNITIONS:

      Otto looked for Esme, did not see her. He looked for Feasley, did not see him. He was about to speak to Adeline when she left the table and went toward the dance floor saying, —I see a gentleman.
      A voice said, —I’ve never seen so much bad silk on so many divine bodies. Another said, —Let’s elope. And another, —You can’t touch me, because I’m in a state of Grace. I’m going to be received tomorrow, only think! Tomorrow . . .
      —Pony boy, a voice crooned.
      —But I thought Victoria and Albert Hall were going to be here. Have you read her book? Have you seen his play? Where are they? said Big Anna, looking, as he had each minute of the evening, nearer to weeping. —Oh Herschel! Herschel! Will you stop that singing and console me?
      —What is it, baby?
      —It’s Agnes. She has my key.
      —Yes, baby, Herschel said. He was almost immobile, but still standing. —I have to get home to work, he said in a voice which was more a liquid presence and barely escaped his throat. —Work. Work. Work.

  7. Not that this is an opinion but… here in Australia this book came out a few years back from this really huge author. He’d written his version on the legend of the Kelly Gang (ok, so I’ve probably lost a lot of people right there. There was a Heath Ledger movie, go to imdb and look it up) Anyhoo, this huge author did his version and there was NO punctuation in the whole book. Seriously. I had to read it for a class I was taking. After that headache, I worship at the altar of punctuation.

  8. Louis Bayard used the dialogue dash in his novel Mr. Timothy, and it totally threw me at first. I did get used to it, but if I hadn’t otherwise found Bayard’s voice entrancing I probably would have given up, despite the fact that it did work for the book itself.

  9. Avatar Parker Haynes says:

    I have to agree that conventional punctuation is my preference, but I do find exceptions. In THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy omitted both quotation marks in dialogue and apostrophes in his contractions. Were it not for his tremendously powerful writing, he would have lost me in the first few pages, but I did find after that, it read quite easily. But I suppose if you are Mr. McCarthy, you have earned the right to write as you darn well please.

    As to sentence fragments, I love them. Yes, grammatically correct sentences require noun and verb, but in today’s fast paced world, why use a verb if the picture is clear without it?

  10. Avatar Phoenix says:

    My other pet peeve is too many incomplete sentences.

    Like our “bad writing” discussion, much of this conversation will likely hinge on likes and dislikes. Some people refuse to read first person. Some people can’t read a sentence frag without complaint. In the hands of a masterful writer, however, frags can add to the rhythm of the prose or punctuate the voice of the piece. I’m a HUGE proponent of sentence frags used well. And I’ve been an editor for large corporations for many, many years — an arena where people are generally less forgiving of the writing “rules” than in general fiction.

    There are, of course, lots of style manuals out there. Grammar and style are not clear-cut disciplines and, as long as the writer is consistent, it often (not always) comes down to whether YOU personally like the style they’ve chosen or not. And when you run across books with deviant punctuation, it goes right back to the “bad writing” discussion where it was pointed out many people had to give the project a green light before it hit the shelves.

    As an author, you just need to realize that you may well be alienating a large portion of your potential audience by bucking the system and make the decision whether staying true to your vision is worth it. The choice is personal.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I’ll have to obtain a copy of the “Chicago Manual of Style,” but so far, I’ve been an avid fan of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” It’s almost like the American Express Card.

    I see a dialog dash as confusing. I use dashes to interject related remarks, where commas or parentheses just don’t feel right.

    As for sentence fragments, I don’t like to use them in the narrative (though sometimes I use the dashes to insert them). Mostly, I place them in the dialog becuase THAT is the way people speak. A conversation is LOADED with sentence fragments, so dialog is where they belong for me.

  12. Avatar 150 says:

    I suspect that if Ulysses had been written with standard style it would be a lot less venerated today.

  13. Avatar Rob says:

    I HATE the “dialogue dash.” So much so that if I see it in a book I’m thinking of reading, I will put the book back on the shelf. The reason it irritates me so much, beyond the basic confusing nature of the beast, is that there is no reason for it other than a writer deciding he/she is too good for good ol’ fashion grammar.

    I have not patience for pretention. And the dialogue dash, IMO, is pretentious.

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Yeah, if only James Joyce had used quotation marks, he might have been taken seriously as a writer. Same goes for that hack Hemingway and that washed-up nobody Dos Passos.

    Come on, y’all are literate. Plenty of respected writers have used dialogue dashes. You can’t really be THAT confused by them, can you? It’s hardly a “new” literary trick. I’d say it’s fairly old and well-respected. Whether or not it’s appropriate for this writer’s work is a totally separate question, but it’s not a crazy new gimmick.

  15. Avatar Selene says:

    Dialog dashes are standard punctuation for some languages. Since English isn’t one of them, I wouldn’t use them myself. Punctuation should, IMO, not draw attention to itself. It’s hardly where most of us want our readers’ attention to be…


  16. Avatar Nonny says:

    I could see dialogue dashes being used under certain circumstances; for instance, denoting telepathic thought in a fantasy story. Or perhaps to emphasize that someone else is speaking a foreign language, in which the dash would be appropriately used.

    Just as a matter of “style”, though? Uh… no. Gimmicks don’t usually work that well.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The dialogue dash seems ridiculous and unnecessary to me. Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation is his way of stripping away as much of the mechanical ‘impediments’ of reading. A matter of taste, I suppose and when I first read him, I found it a bit disconcerting and confusing, especially when characters are speaking. But in time you get into his prose rhythm. No doubt he’s one of the finest writers writing today. But he can get away with this lack of punctuation because he is an artist of the narrative form. Us lesser mortals should probably follow the rules.

  18. Avatar Speak Coffee says:

    Dash or quotes wouldn’t change whether or not I bought a book. It has to have an interesting story/blurb then I’ll buy it and I couldn’t care less what the punctuation looks like so long as it’s consistent and readable.

    However, I’m betting if you’re the new kid on the publishing block you should stick to the standard (and contemporary) rules until you have some clout. Then we can have this discussion again.

  19. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    It’s not bad advice to stay away from gimmicks, particularly when it comes to gimmicks that are part of the basic structure of what you’re doing.

    Generally accepted English usage: dialogue in quotation marks, past tense, more or less complete sentences, traditional punctuation.

    You can play with them, for sure, but at your own risk.

  20. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Punctuation, when done properly, disappears into a story. Unfamiliar punctuation will draw the reader away from the story. That’s the last thing that I, as a writer, want to do.

  21. Dialogue dashes might throw me a bit at first, but wouldn’t be enough for me to stop reading. If I wanted to use dialogue dashes in my own story, however, I’d probably just tell myself to suck it up, use standard punctuation, and then worry about it once the book sold.

    Dialogue dashes are a stylistic thing, but when it comes to playing with grammar (sentence frags have been mentioned), it all comes down to skill. You have to know how to use the language properly before you can start experimenting with it too much. It is very easy to tell when an authors use sentence fragments without realizing they’re grammatically incorrect, and when they have a mastery of the language and are breaking the rules to achieve a certain effect. (And a lot of this can be seen by the frequency with which they use such a technique.)

  22. Several publishers with which I contract as a freelance copyeditor have been known to instruct freelancers to replace dialogue dashes with quotation marks. The dashes are seen as an annoying affectation.

  23. Add my vote to the “stick with the current standards of English grammar” group. Grammatical sentences are easy-to-understand and make stories easy-to-read. Proper grammar allows the reader to sink into her imagination as she reads instead of focusing on the sentences themselves. I doubt I’d buy a book using dialogue dashes instead of quotation marks.

    I’ve noticed that everyone who wants to buck the system seems to have a justification for it, but none of them have convinced me. Yes, people speak in fragments in dialogue. I don’t object to a story using them occasionally or using them to characterize a certain character. However, it becomes a problem that jolts me from the story when the dialogue becomes difficult to parse or half of every character’s dialogue is sentence fragments.

    If you find yourself having to justify your grammar-deviation choices, you might want to examine your reasons for doing so. Is it really worth losing a chunk of your potential audience to do so? Your choice.

  24. I can’t stand dialogue dashes. I’ve read a few books that used them and I spent half my time wondering why the author chose to use them instead of traditional punctuation. Probably not what the author had in mind.

  25. Avatar Catherine says:

    I’ll accept anything if I understand it, and if I can see the point

    Think the phonetic parts of Feersum Endjinn, or the second person pov of The Gospel Of The Knife.

    So no, dialogue dashes wouldn’t throw me for long.

    Looks like I’m pretty much alone in this corner though *grins*

  26. Avatar Heidi says:

    My first thought here was also Cormac McCarthy’s Road. I just finished reading it and the lack of quotations drove me crazy. I had to read much of the book several times to figure out when the conversations began and ended, and who was talking when.

    His use of language is beautiful,and I get the style choice but I was too busy trying to figure it out to enjoy it. I say when the uniqueness of the writing distracts from the story, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

    Odds are stacked against new writers enough without adding ammunition for an agent to reject you.

    It’s like making a statement by printing your query on pink perfumed paper. It makes a statement all right – just not the right one!

  27. Avatar Kristin says:

    Dialogue dashes actually make it very hard to read. Would rather see traditional quotes in my books.

  28. Avatar Elissa M says:

    I’m not much interested in literary fiction where the style is more important than the story. Some people enshrine such things as the epitome of writing, and they have the right to their opinion. As others have said, this falls into a taste category not unlike the previous “good/bad” discussion. Again as others here pointed out, standard punctuation is invisible and lets the story be the star. I read stories, not writing.

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with Kryianna – what is a dialogue dash? I’ve seen/used dashes within dialogue to connect sentence fragments, but I would love to see an example of what one looks like. All the books (including historicals) I read use proper English punctuation.

  30. Avatar Flem says:

    I use the dash when writing drafts in longhand because it is easier that way, but when things go into the word processor I agree that quotes make everything nice and clear.

  31. Avatar Anne-Marie says:

    Dialogue dashes are standard punctuation in French, which is the other language I can read and speak fluently. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed if an English book was using them, because I grew up quite used to seeing them in all the French books I read.

    For me, not a big deal.

  32. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Punctuation evolved to make reading an understandable experience. Whether it’s apostrophes, quotes, capitalization at the begining of a sentence and a period at the end, eveyone needs to follow the rules, or there are no rules.

  33. Avatar --Deb says:

    Me, too–traditional punctuation, please. I, too, dislike the free spirits who abandon things like quotation marks, commas, and capital letters, just because they (feel they) can. In poetry, or a personal letter? Feel free, but in a work of fiction you expect others to read? Or, at least, something later than the first draft you scrawled in your notebook at the coffee shop? Yes, please.

    The only exception I’m really willing to admit, so far as quotation marks, is in science fiction, when you may have dialogue that’s not exactly traditional–sub-audible communication, telepathy–things that need to look different than the spoken conversations.

    Of course, I don’t read French, and admit other countries their own, personal style usages. (grin)

  34. Avatar Chuck says:

    for a wonderful example of how the dialogue dash works,
    read Charlie Huston’s page turners, starting with Caught Stealing. At a book signing in Houston, he said didn’t know anyone else had used them. He just “dit it.” You should have seen his face when I said, “Like in Cold Mountain.” It scrunched right up.

  35. Avatar mbenkin says:

    Isn’t the dialog dash a British convention? William Gaddis used it in “J.R.” And James Ellroy stripped out almost every grammatical element except the essentials in “White Jazz.” Of course, nobody here is William Gaddis or James Ellroy. That I know of.

  36. Avatar Anonymous says:

    – What the heck’s a dialogue dash?
    – Yeah, I wondered too, so I googled. – And?
    – I tracked it down in wikipedia, under “Quotation mark, non-English usage”.
    – Thanks.
    – Don’t know about you, but I reckon I’d sound pretentious.
    – Like this post?

  37. Avatar Chessie says:

    Why the dialog dash? Why not format Quotations like they do in Spanish?

    I don’t even know if I can do that right, but it always looks hysterical to me.

  38. Avatar leesmiley says:

    When McCarthy or Frazier write the way they do, it’s style. When a new author does it, it’s weird.

    Once you sell a few books, top a bestseller list or two, win a Pulitzer, you too can be wrong and call it style.

    I think this is the unspoken rule in every comp class I ever took.

  39. “My first thought here was also Cormac McCarthy’s Road.”

    His writing is lovely, but I am not pondering punctuation for hundreds of pages just so I can say I read it. It isn’t worth the hassle for his work and certainly not worth it for anyone less skilled than he is.

    I’m sorry, but it reminds me of the painting that was hung upside down and people pondered and discussed the meaning ad nauseum. I’m not sure if similar discussions took place when it was displayed properly, but I assume they did. My observation would have been, “It’s a wavy line on a white board.”

    I freely admit I am not sophisticated enough to appreciate the “genius” of not using punctuation or using it in a gimmicky fashion.

  40. Avatar Linda says:

    Used too much, it might be considered repetitive, like using too many exclamation marks. I used to use dashes a lot until I ran across a reference about them in a writing book. I went back and started counting them, and then I went on a dash diet. Now I use them when they’re important and necessary to the context.

  41. Avatar Rob says:

    for a wonderful example of how the dialogue dash works,
    read Charlie Huston’s page turners

    Oddly enough, the most recent example of me deciding not to read a book because of the dialogue dash was one of Charlie Huston’s. Using a dash instead of quotes just doesn’t compute with my brain. Maybe it’s my own failing. I also think Cormac McCarthy is over rated. Why does bad grammar make him a genius? If his writing is really that amazing, why does he require the pretentious affectation of eliminating punctuation?

  42. Avatar David Klein says:

    Regarding Jessica’s answer . . . I agree the success of fiction comes down to voice, but voice is a unique whole comprised of many discrete elements, including punctuation style. Dialog with dashes rather than traditional quote marks can sound abrupt, staccato, as if fired off in quick conversation. Dialog with no punctuation, such as McCarthy’s, blends in with the narrative, so that dialog and story become one, establishing tone and mood. Remember John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany?” Owen’s dialog was ALL CAPS. EVERY WORD HE SPOKE! Now that’s a risk, and it seemed annoying at first, yet was integral to the story and Owen’s “wrecked voice.” Rather than choosing a particular punctuation and writing style because you like it, the story itself should dictate those choices.

  43. Avatar KingM says:

    I think it’s dumb. There’s perfectly good punctuation that serves the purpose. If you’re going to do this, you might as well change all your question marks to ├ while you’re at it.

  44. Avatar Suzanne Nam says:

    doesn’t seem to matter much. maybe readers have to adjust for the first few pages but after that punctuation disappears. i’ve never heard a single person say they were distracted by the punctuation used by joyce or hemingway or mccarthy. and ee cummings used non-traditional punctuation and capitalization to great effect.

    i respect writers who stick to their guns on something they feel strongly about instead of pandering to agents and editors. there are many things you can do to your writing to make it more likeable (same goes with your personality) but then it’s not really yours.

    if you view your writing essentially as art and self-expression, do whatever you think works.

    if you view your writing essentially as a product you are selling to as many people as you can get to buy it, keep the quotes.

  45. Avatar Jess says:

    To the Anon who said that dialog dash is not a new gimmick – of course it’s not. Our complaint re: Joyce, et al. is that it’s *pretentious*. There’s no good reason for it, really, except a style choice, and the common theme seems to be that the style it denotes is “snob”. I couldn’t read Charles Frazier because of it (and other reasons). It made me go “Ick, why?” Stylistically I admit it can work for some people, I just haven’t found them yet.

  46. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think the dash is a gimmick to try to make the story “unique”. As stated before, voice should make a story unique, not gimmicks.

  47. Avatar Laura says:

    As the editor of a small literary magazine, I don’t mind experimental styles with short pieces. However, asking a reader to slag through 300 pages of mental acrobatics is just too much.

    The whole idea of writing is to confer meaning and knowledge. For good storytelling, it should also include emotional involvement and investment. This sort of connection is difficult to make with non-standard writing styles. It’s unnecessary and pretentious and a bit like painting with colors that are not visible to the human eye. What would be the point?

    While I resist the idea that proper grammar, spelling and punctuation is some kind of litmus test for your sincerity as an artist, I also think that trying to be purposefully obtuse is a bit pretentious.