My writing group asked for clarification on the use of the colon or comma in dialogue. Are commas more useful for introducing speech in creative writing, asked Louise, with colons used in more formal writing? Good question.
Well, fascinating as it is, I didn’t actually know the answer. So, I’ve done some web-based research…
Like most punctuation, there is no absolutely clear answer. My feeling is that people tend to overuse commas, scattering the little blighters everywhere, disrupting prose, so where it works, I opt for colons; however, that is probably because I am used to academic writing.
This information contains spellings I dearly wish to edit (from an American website) but you get the drift: Be careful with your use of colons. They have a clinic-y feel to them, and they can easily take the softness and poetic flavor out of your writing. Think about using a comma or semi-colon instead. If you don’t, chances are your editor will.
Received wisdom is that, in dialogue, a colon (:) is used if there is an independent clause (in bold, below) that can stand alone as a sentence (i.e., expresses a complete thought).
He offered the following advice: “Don’t eat the mushrooms.”
If the introduction is not an independent clause, opt for a comma. For example:
He stated, “Don’t eat the mushrooms.”
The rules are pretty lax, actually, so you can virtually use what you like so long as it does not impede flow. The key issue is to be consistent with your approach, and to write for your audience.
This, from the Writing Forward Website, is one of the clearest expositions I’ve seen on the subject:
Colons with Dialogue
The colon is commonly used to introduce speech in a dialogue (such as a script). Here is an example:
Teacher: Why did you use a colon here?
Student: I thought it looked good.
Note that in the script construct, the quotation marks are absent. If you are writing a play, screenplay, teleplay, or any other kind of script, you should check with an industry-specific style guide to ensure that you are applying proper formatting. That includes colon usage as well as quotation marks!
While we are at it…
There’s a touch of snobbery out there on this one …the semi-colon is just a break in a sentence that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.
Linguists have found that semi-colons, colons, and even commas, are on the wane in everyday usage and that many speakers no longer understand the use of a semi-colon. It is suggested by some that most readers (and some writers, alas) of popular fiction haven’t a clue what a semi-colon is, so authors hesitate to use them.
Conversely, the semi-colon is still heavily employed in literary fiction and academic writing, so it depends on what you are writing. Literary fiction is considered “serious fiction” of literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction.
Academic writing follows a similar process. The University of Leicester website says:
The semi-colon represents a break within a sentence that is stronger than a comma, but less final than a full stop. It enables the writer to avoid overuse of the comma and preserves the finality of the full stop. Semi-colons are used to separate items in a list and to link closely related sentences.