“The President is Missing” — Some Punctuation Lessons

At my tender age a lesson in punctuation is rare, but very humbling when it does occur. It is a reminder that I still do not yet know everything. While reading “The President is Missing” by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, I had one such lesson.

Granted, in my career I never had much reason for writing dialog, so I had a lot to learn about this part of the writing craft. One criticism of “The President is Missing” is that the president in this thriller is prone to giving long speeches. If I were co-writing a novel with an ex-president of the United States, I would give him the liberty of including long speeches. As I was reading “The President is Missing”, I noticed that some paragraphs of dialog had only a double quotation (“) at the beginning of the paragraph, and none at the end of the paragraph. The next paragraph, part of the same speech by the same speaker, began with a beginning double quotation mark. There was only an ending double quotation mark at the paragraph that ended the entire speech. I had neither seen nor noticed a double quotation mark at the beginning of the paragraph and none at the end of the paragraph.

I was a little befuddled by what I thought was a grammar error in a book written by an ex-president of the United States and one of the leading novelists in the United States. It was published by a leading publisher as well. I couldn’t believe these talented authors and respected publisher had made a grammar error.

It turns out, of course, that they did not make any grammar error. I did discover that if a speaker being quoted has a speech of more than one paragraph, the first line of the quotation is marked by a double quotation mark (“). If the quotation by the same speaker extends to more than one paragraph, there is no quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, but there is a double quotation mark (“) at the beginning of the next paragraph. There is only a final double quotation mark (“) at the end of the final sentence of the final paragraph of the speech. I always assumed that the number of beginning and ending quotation marks had to be the same. I was incorrect in the case of a quotation that contained several paragraphs.

Perhaps I never read any quoted multi-paragraph speeches before, but more likely I just never noticed this particular punctuation issue in my prior reading. Perhaps I am just reading differently now that I am trying my hand at writing.  Old dogs can learn new tricks, and the lesson I learned here is that reading widely is a good thing. Much is to be learned from successful authors, and punctuation needs to follow certain surprisingly complex rules.

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