Today the Dragon Wins

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Sandy Lender is the editor of an international trade publication and the author of the fantasy novels Choices Meant for Gods and Choices Meant for Kings, available from ArcheBooks Publishing, and the series-supporting chapbook, What Choices We Made.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Grammar Guide
Punctuate for Clarity, Part IV, Quotations and Attributive Phrases in Dialogue

(Ed. note: I do not use serial commas in this article, pursuant to AP style.)

Before delving into today’s Grammar Guide, I want to define an attribute phrase as the part of the sentence that shows to whom or to what you’re attributing a quote. If I want to write a short story about a couple characters from my fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods, I would likely attribute some obnoxious statement to Henry Bakerson. Here’s the example.

Nigel had been waiting for Amanda Chariss to return from the training arena for nearly an hour.
“Why do you look edgy?” Henry asked.
“I’m waiting for Mandy,” Nigel replied.
“Ah,” he said. “So, then, why is there still grass where you’ve been pacing?”

(A) I don’t write such stilted dialogue. This is for example purposes.
(B) The attributive phrases in the example above are “Henry asked”, “Nigel replied”, and “he said”.

Punctuation belongs at the end of a completed sentence. This means you must keep track of your quotation marks, commas and attributive phrases to make sure you don’t have stray capitalization and periods in the middle of declarative statements.

Example: “We hope Chariss saves the world,” he said.

This declarative statement includes the quote, within quotation marks, a comma to set it off from its attributive phrase, the attributive phrase with a lowercase beginning, and a period to end it all. When using dialogue, the declarative, interrogative (question) and exclamatory statements all take punctuation within the quotation marks if the quotation is ending the sentence. For instance, Henry asks Nigel, “So, then, why is there still grass where you’ve been pacing?”, and the interrogative statement ends the construction, thus it takes the question mark inside the quotation mark.

If your character’s statement is a question, and you’re following it with the attributive phrase, you don’t use the comma to set it off. You go ahead and use a question mark (or an exclamation point if you’re giving them an exclamatory statement) inside the quotation mark, and then follow it with the attributive phrase and a period to end the sentence. If you use a pronoun instead of the character’s name, lowercase the pronoun because you’re still in the middle of the sentence.

Example: “Chariss is the only one who can save us!” he yelled.

Keep in mind that if your character will be waxing poetic for an undue length of time, the opening sentence of each paragraph gets an opening quotation mark, but the closing quotation mark doesn’t come until the end, or until you interrupt with an attributive phrase. For instance, Abigail Farrier, also from Choices Meant for Gods, would go on and on forever something like this:

“When I awoke today, I thought instantly of Nigel Taiman and his lovely brown eyes,” Abigail said. “He is the handsomest man in the whole world, and I can’t imagine I’ll survive another day without him.
“Given the state of things here in Bellan, I really must make a plan to get back to Arcana City. This isn’t just to see Nigel again, but to make a change in my life.
“Father would be so disappointed to see me go, and would, no doubt, try to stop me. But I am a grown woman now and able to make decisions on my own. It’s high time I returned to the land where I grew up.”

Also keep in mind that some of your characters’ statements can be made as part of the larger sentence without the interruption of setting off the attributive phrase. You don’t always have to signpost the fact that such-n-such character is about to state something by setting a phrase off with a comma if the phrase and the character’s comment flow together as a continuous whole.

Example: Chariss gave them a quizzical look as she approached. “You two look like you’re up to no good.”
Nigel explained that “Henry’s never let a chance for harm pass him by.”

In this case, Nigel’s statement exists as part of the overall sentence so fluidly that there’s no need to set it apart. It is attributed to him without interrupting the flow with a comma.

This guide only covers the use of punctuation with quotes when working with dialogue. We’ll address punctuation when quoting material for other forms of writing, such as term papers, in tomorrow's Grammar Guide. For now, feel free to review this guide to be sure you put your punctuation within the quotation marks where it should be and don’t capitalize stray words in your attributive phrases within your sentence.

For Standard English grammar resources, I recommend Creative Writer's Handbook (fourth edition) by Philip K. Jason (a friend of mine) and Allan B. Lefcowitz (available from and Eats, Shoots & Leaves The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (available from

(Sandy Lender has been an editor in the magazine publishing industry for sixteen years, is an editor in the book publishing industry and is the author of the epic fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods, available from

"Some days, I just want the dragon to win."
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