• Tiffany Noel Froese

Q&A: How do I punctuate dialogue if a character is reading aloud?


Depending on how your scene is structured and the context of the reading, there are several ways to address this issue. Like most copyediting quandaries, it takes some thought and investigation, particularly when there is a mix of dialogue pieces that use both quoted text within a character’s dialogue and quoted text spoken on its own.


One place to start is The Chicago Manual of Style section 13:30, which states,


Quoted words, phrases, and sentences run into the text are enclosed in double quotation marks. Single quotation marks enclose quotations within quotations; double marks, quotations within these; and so on . . . When the material quoted consists entirely of a quotation within a quotation, only one set of quotation marks need be employed (usually double quotation marks).


Let’s look at how this might play out in a scene. Say you have a church scene and the pastor is reading from the Bible as part of a sermon.



“Let’s take out our bibles,” said Pastor Nina. “And let’s look at what Paul says about love. In Corinthians thirteen verse four, he says, ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.’ We often hear these words read during wedding ceremonies, but do these rules for love apply only to our spouses or our children, or our treasured friends? Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do you think maybe Paul was giving us instructions on how to do just that?”

It all sounded well and good if you were an itinerant preacher, thought Bertie. Paul didn’t have to contend with neighbors who parked rusted out cars on the front lawn and played death metal at full volume out the front window. It’s not like she could up and move without a significant financial loss.



A character’s dialogue is considered quoted material. The author is quoting the character in the course of telling a story. So Pastor Nina’s dialogue is set within double quotations. But Pastor Nina is also quoting the Bible by reading aloud from it. And since there are no stage directions or dialogue tags to separate the quoted material from the Bible from Pastor Nina’s dialogue, we use single quotations to help the reader differentiate between what is from the Bible and what is Pastor Nina speaking.


What if Pastor Nina continues reading after Bertie’s reflections, but doesn’t add any more of her commentary to the readings? How do we punctuate it? Well, according the CMOS 13:30, we only use one set of double quotation marks.



It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs,” Pastor Nina continued reading. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”



What if Bertie’s reflections on Pastor Nina’s sermon weren’t there and Pastor Nina’s remarks flowed from that initial paragraph into the new paragraph where all she’s doing is quoting? This is where things can get a little tricky. The easiest solution is to follow the guidance of CMOS 13:32 which states:


Quoted material of more than one paragraph should be presented as a block quotation if at all possible . . .


Pastor Nina’s dialogue, which is a sermon, especially lends itself to a block quotation. Notice how the quotations at the very outside of the dialogue are removed and the quotations around the Bible quotations have been turned from single to double quotation marks. A block quotation is also usually indented from the rest of the text and set in a smaller font.



Bertie slipped into the pew just as Pastor Nina began her sermon.


Let’s take out our bibles, and let’s look at what Paul says about love. In Corinthians thirteen verse four, he says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” We often hear these words read during wedding ceremonies, but do these rules for love apply only to our spouses or our children or our treasured friends? Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do you think maybe Paul was giving us instructions on how to do just that? “It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

It all sounded well and good if you were an itinerant preacher, thought Bertie. Paul didn’t have to contend with neighbors who parked rusted out cars on the front lawn and played death metal at full volume out the front window. It’s not like she could up and move without a significant financial loss.



CMOS 13:32 and 13:33 both address how to use quotation marks if the quoted material must be run into the text instead of broken out as a block quotation, but this can lead to clunky-looking text on the page. For instance, you might wind up with something like this:



“Let’s take out our bibles,” said Pastor Nina, “and let’s look at what Paul says about love. In Corinthians thirteen verse four, he says, ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.’ We often hear these words read during wedding ceremonies, but do these rules for love apply only to our spouses or our children or our treasured friends? Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do you think maybe Paul was giving us instructions on how to do just that?

“’It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’”



Take special note of the second paragraph. That’s a lot of quotation marks. If a reader is paying attention to your punctuation, this kind of treatment may also be confusing because, although correct according to CMOS, it doesn’t look consistent and it would take a deep investigation into Chicago to understand that it’s not a typo—especially if you have other instances of a character reading a quote aloud that is not set with dialogue in multiple paragraphs. The last thing you want is to cause confusion in your reader.


To recap: when punctuating the dialogue of a character who is reading aloud and commenting on what she’s reading, my advice is to either utilize stage directions and dialogue tags to strategically break up different parts of the speech or, if it serves the scene and character, set the dialogue and quoted material in a block quote.


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