Screenwriting Punctuation for Dummies

I’m a stickler for proper English grammar. I get really annoyed when people justify their horrible grammar with excuses, as though it’s snobby to use subject-verb agreement. It’s not. It’s our language. If you want use English to a professional end, you should have a level of mastery.

I’ll admit it: my skin crawls when people don’t use adverbs properly or are grossly ignorant with bravado (Madre de vs. Maitre d’). I worked as a copy editor for a newspaper when I was younger, so I probably have more of an eye for grammar than the average person. However, even my grammar isn’t fantastic, which you’ll notice in reading this blog – but at least I make a concerted effort.

If your grammar is not stellar, please hire someone to read through your script who does have stellar grammar. I’d say, on average, well written screenplays come in with less than a handful of typos – five or less. If your script has more typos than this, it just looks like gross negligence, and I wonder why the writer is writing if they have such a poor grasp on our most basic tool.

Typos and formatting errors can be insidious and very easy to miss. We tend to fix typos in our mind, and it really does take a fresh eye to catch errors. I did a copy editing pass for a friend recently who thought there would be only a couple of errors, but I found many, many errors – in some cases, six to a page.

So, here is the short of it on the most frequent errors I see. When you do a proofreading pass on your own work, here’s what to look for.

The Comma
The comma has many applications. I am addressing the most common incorrect usage I see in the scripts I read.

1. When addressing someone, use a comma.
Example: “Hey, there, Sam.”
Not: “Hey there Sam.”

Depending upon usage, if you do not insert a comma in this scenario, your sentence will have a different meaning than the one you intended.
Example: “I don’t know, Brian.” (You are telling Brian that you do not know.)
Not: “I don’t know Brian.” (You are telling a third party that you are unacquainted with and have never physically met the individual Brian.)
These sentences have two very different meanings, and it is not my job as your reader to try to intuit what you mean to say. Use a comma when it is grammatically correct to do so to indicate the first example.

2. Asides
Example: “Hey, there.”
Not: “Hey there.”
Example: “Anyway, I was thinking we should go to the movies.”
Example: “Furthermore, he needs to get his shit together.”
Example: “However, it doesn’t usually go like that.”
Example: “Moreover, you suck.”
Example: “Nevertheless, it was a good idea.”
There are a bunch of rules on asides. The main one appears to be that if you begin a sentence with an aside, it warrants a comma. If the aside falls within the sentence, it might not require a comma unless you are placing specific emphasis on that word. All I know is I get very annoyed if I am reading an entire script and there are no commas anywhere. That does really bother me.

3. The comma (period, punctuation) goes INSIDE the quotation mark and the apostrophe. Always. DO NOT PUT THE COMMA OUTSIDE THE QUOTATION OR APOSTROPHE. This is my main pet peeve. Didn’t we learn this rule in the fourth grade? Come on, people. This is likely by far the most common mistake I see.
Example: She said to me, “It’s a beautiful day, don’t you think?”
Not: She said to me, “It’s a beautiful day, don’t you think”?
Example: My favorite show is “Seinfeld.”
Not: My favorite show is “Seinfeld”.
Example: He loves “Seinfeld,” especially the one wherein Kramer gets an award for being retarded.
Not: He loves “Seinfeld”, especially the one wherein Kramer gets an award for being retarded.

Contractions
Most people don’t speak without using contractions. To this end, make sure in your dialogue you are conscious of when someone speaks with a contraction and when not. Make your dialogue sound how real human beings speak.
Example: “You’re such an ass.”
Not: “You are such an ass.”
Example: “If you’re so high and mighty, you do it.”
Not: “If you are so high and mighty, you do it.”
In both of these instances, the speaker would likely be angry and would not take the time to separate out the “you are.” In general, use the contraction, otherwise the reader will wonder why you didn’t.

You can specifically not use a contraction as a choice if you are putting special emphasis on those words.
Example: “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
This puts special thoughtfulness into the way the speaker would say “you are,” and because it is filled with emotion, may well be appropriate to that moment.

It’s vs. Its
Basically, if you’re not saying “it is,” DO NOT use an apostrophe.
“It’s” = It is. This is a contraction.
Example: “It’s raining.”
Example: “It’s a good thing.”
Not: “Its a good thing.”
“Its” indicates possession. In this case, the object is possessed by the it.
Example: (re: carpet) “You can tell by its faded color that it’s really, really old.”
Not: (re: carpet) “You can tell by it’s faded color that its really, really old.”
Example: (re: a car) “You can tell its tires are worn just by looking at them.”
Not: (re: a car) “You can tell it’s tires are worn just by looking at them.”

There, Their, They’re
This is also a very frequent mistake. But, it is a very simple rule.

1. “There” = location, placement, here/there, over there
Example: “Look over there.”
Not: “Look over their.”
Example: “There’s the gun.” (there is the gun)
Not: “Theirs the gun.”

2. “Their” = possession, they have
Example: “Their eyes are blue.” (two or more individuals have blue eyes)
Not: “There eyes are blue.”
Example: “It’s their problem, not mine.”
Not: “It’s there problem, not mine.”

3. “They’re” = contraction of “they are”
Example: “They’re up on the roof.”
Not: “Their up on the roof.”
Example: “They think they’re doing well, but they’re not.”
Not: “They think their doing well, but there not.”

Your vs. You’re
1. “Your” indicates possession.
Example: “I really like your handbag. Is that an Orla Kiely?”
Example: “I’m sorry to tell you, but your screenplay needs work.”
Not: “I’m sorry to tell you, but your’re screenplay needs work.”

2. You’re is a contraction of “you are”
Example: “You’re being ridiculous.”
Not: “Your being ridiculous.”
Example: “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Apostrophe and Possessive
The apostrophe indicates possession. Do not use an apostrophe when you are just making something plural. You don’t need it. If you add an apostrophe, it means somebody has it.
* Bags does not equal bag’s
Example: Sarah’s handbag
Example: Scott’s toothbrush
Example: People were emerging from their brownstones.
Not: People were emerging from their brownstone’s.

Apostrophe when abbreviating years
Example: The civil rights movement of the 1960s was an important period in our nation’s history.
Example: The civil rights movement of the ’60s was an important period in our nation’s history. (in this instance, the apostrophe should face away from the year)
Not: The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was an important period in our nation’s history.
Not: It was the 1960’s and times were good.

No apostrophe in ages
Example: DAVID BLANE, 40s,
Not: DAVID Blane, 40’s,

The Dash (–)
The dash indicates someone being cut off or interrupted in dialogue. An abrupt stop to the line. It is standard within screenwriting software to use two hyphens together.
Example: “Don’t think that if you–”
Example: “You fucking asshole. I’m going to cut off your–”

The Ellipses (…)
The ellipsis indicates a pause in dialogue, such as a thought trailing off. Unlike the dash, this is not an abrupt ending or interruption. This could be used when someone loses their train of thought… Most people don’t talk like space cadets, wandering around with their sentences trailing off, so please be conservative when using the ellipsis, or make sure this is a definite character trait before you write in too many ellipses.
I just looked up proper formatting of the ellipsis, and technically the ellipsis should have a space both before and after AND ALSO spaces in between each of the three periods. However, I find that this isn’t the most prevalent usage. I’m happy if people use three periods together – but there must be a space after the three periods.
Example (stylistically proper): “I don’t know . . . I was thinking . . . Maybe you ought to do it?”
Example (common): “I don’t know… I was thinking… Maybe you ought to do it?”
Not: “I don’t know…I was thinking…Maybe you ought to do it?”
The average script now does not have a period before or after an ellipsis. I don’t know how that got popularized, but it’s wrong. You need a space after the ellipsis. Or, better yet, don’t use it at all.

The Parenthetical (a line in parenthesis underneath the speaker’s name and above the dialogue)
A good use of parenthetical is if that character is speaking another language.
Example:
BOBBY
(in Russian)
I’m going to slit your throat and watch you bleed to death.

I generally appreciate the occasional parenthetical if the subtext of that parenthetical indicates an emotion that is perhaps contrary to the line, such as above. Do not use a parenthetical to state the obvious interpretation of the line.
Example:
SARAH
(smiling)
I’m going to slit your throat and watch you bleed to death.

Not:
SARAH
(angry)
I’m going to slit your throat and watch you bleed to death.

Be conservative with parenthetical usage.

The CAPS
Caps are to be used when introducing a character. The first and last names only are in caps.
Example: TONY SMITH, 39, impresario extraordinaire.
NOT: IMPRESARIO EXTRAORDINAIRE TONY SMITH 39
NOT: IMPRESARIO extraordinaire Tony Smith thirty nine.

Caps also can be used for loud noises (SCREAM) or to flag an important word within an action sequence (for example, the introduction of a GUN or a LEAP across a building).

To my mind, the capping of selective words on the page helps the reader read down the page (dialogue and key words to understand the plot). If you cap too many words, the reader will not know where to focus the eye, and then won’t get those outstanding details. Make the reader’s job very easy and in long sequences of action lines CAP only the key words the reader needs to get the story.

Exclamation (!)
Do not overuse!!! Most of the time, you don’t need the exclamation. The sentiment will be abundantly clear from the line. If it’s not, consider rewriting the line before adding an exclamation point. If you take a basically dramatic line and add an exclamation onto it, it becomes melodramatic, at which point I start using melodramatic voices in my head and satirizing your dialogue (either inside my own head or out loud).
Example: “You killed my mother.”
Not: “You killed my mother!”
The first line might be interpreted by an actor with rich subtext, however the second comes off as something out of a Mexican soap opera.

Also…
An additional resource from the Capital Community College Foundation.

Quick and dirty tips from the Grammar Girl.

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7 Responses to Screenwriting Punctuation for Dummies

  1. Mary May 7, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Helpful tips! Thank you! (oops–too many exclamation marks). I appreciate your details and often refer to books such as “Woe is I”.

    Question: Do you have an opinion or peeve about the use of italics in dialogue to emphasize a word? I know it’s a stylistic addition that I trust the actor or director to decide, but sometimes a phrase seems to require it.

  2. Monica May 13, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    Mary, I have met many purists over the years who insist that no words should be italicized, bolded or underscored in any way. Perhaps it is true that once you start hearing the cadence of how someone speaks in your mind, you might not need to keep using italics or bold.

    I personally do not have any peeves about a writer ‘calling out’ how their character would say something, especially if it is a little unique or different. It boils down to the style and flair of the writer and can really underscore a unique voice, when used judiciously. (I have many more peeves about poor grammar, because that’s not a stylistic choice – it’s just poor craftsmanship. It’s like a “musician” who is tone deaf.)

    Italicizing a word that wouldn’t usually be the emphasized word sometimes makes me have a stronger sense of a character – the way they express themselves, the things that are important to them. Some writers bold the emotional beat of the scene or certain scene markers that are important to plot – I don’t have a problem with that because it just makes the writing very clear.

    However, for me, it always works best when it is incorporated into the style, tone and voice of the writer. If you have a character who is dramatic or has a quirk, and you’re going to use italics, then make that a part of the script and use it judiciously throughout. If it’s funny, for example, then if I see that as a kicker in certain places, it will likely make me laugh. Or if a critical emotional beat is bolded – then the next time I see another bolded sentence, I’ll know there’s another huge emotional turnpoint. I’ll be excited.

    Think carefully how you want to come off to the reader and go for it!

  3. rodney July 31, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    Monica,

    Thanks for these tips. I am also a member of the grammar police, but was unclear on hyphens vs. ellipses. I am clear now. Thanks very much.

    Rodney

  4. kerland January 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Monica:

    I really like your site and I too am a grammar stickler and agree with virtually everything you say with the exception of punctuation always going inside quotation marks.

    I was taught that when one has to use a question mark or an exclamation point with a sentence that ends in a quotation, one follow the dictates of logic in determining where the question mark or exclamation point goes. If it is part of the quotation itself, we put it inside the quotation marks, and if it governs the sentence as a whole but not the material being quoted, we put it outside the quotation marks.

    As well when it is single letter or a number inside quotation marks the punctuation goes outside the quotation marks.

    I’ve gotten into many grammar “dust-ups” with writing partners about the whole inside/outside quotations thing however in the all boys school I went to they followed a strict British curriculum and this is how we were taught. When I attended university in Canada we were taught the same rules.

    The generic putting of punctuation inside quotations is an American affect and I would argue it’s not proper English grammar.

    PS – Ironically I’m sure I made about a dozen grammatical errors typing this.

  5. Monica January 24, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    Kerry, that is funny that you’re addressing the use of quotation marks. I should be clear that this is an American rule, since I’m American, however I would argue that if you plan to send writing within the US, it helps to not have confusing Canadian or British punctuation (don’t kill me for saying that). I have noticed that here in the US, people are more frequently putting the punctuation anywhere they please – without any rules about it. Here as a child in school, I learned to always put the punctuation inside the quote unless (and you’re right here) one person speaking is quoting another, in which the punctuation of the item being quoted should be correct to that quote. However, in American English, if I were noting an “a,” I would still put the comma inside the quotes! There is just that sneaking suspicion that any punctuation randomly hanging outside the quotes is probably incorrect in American English.

    However, I can say that lately – especially with so much online writing now that nobody proofs – I looked up recently the horrible phenomenon of the punctuation outside the quotes (to me, it’s nails on a chalkboard, truly), and I was surprised to discover that it is more standard in British English. I didn’t know about Canadian, so thanks for educating me on that one. Brits and Canadians get a pass 🙂

    I just think there are many Americans who are poorly educated and don’t know the grammar basics of our own language. Is there really any decent excuse for this? Maybe this sounds harsh, but I am always shocked when I get a script that doesn’t have subject-verb agreement, or has random punctuation (or worse, NO punctuation at all). The fact that the writer felt it was acceptable to send out a script without having a level of mastery of the basic building blocks of our trade is really terrible.

    Conversely, when I get a script that was clearly well proofed and the writer took pains to work on the quality of the prose and grammar, I always notice and would lean toward assuming that the writer is a person who respects the craft, him/herself as a writer, and is detail oriented. These are all bonuses.

  6. John Burhop April 13, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Is it okay for me to use “she’s” instead of “she is” for the action text in a screenplay? Somewhere along the line, I was instructed to use “she is” instead of the contraction for my screenplay action text. Example: “She is very drunk” vs. “She’s very drunk.” Thanks.

  7. Jerry Doty August 11, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    RE: RHETORICAL QUESTIONS: I am working on a series of Christian skit videos. I will be working with amateur non-actor teens, so interpretation of dialogue is something I find they don’t understand.

    My writing style uses some rhetorical questions. What is the correct way to punctuate these? I’ve been told a question is a question is a question, but if I use a question mark I notice teens read it as a question with vocal inflection going up on the last word. I want it spoken as a statement even though it is in the form of a question. I used a parenthetical under the character name that states (rhetorical question) then dialogue on the next line, but found teens don’t know what a rhetorical question is. Here is an example:
    DAVID
    You won the lottery, didn’t you!

    or sarcastic rhetorical question:

    JOEY
    (sarcastic)
    Yeah, sure. Why don’t you just admit it, Tommy, you’re afraid of the dark, aren’t you.

    So back to my question. What is the correct way to punctuate a rhetorical question in a script.