Punctuation

Q. I understand that commas should be used to introduce dialogue, typically in the fashion of “He said, ‘Get my copy of CMOS!’” But what about instructions to begin a dialogue, make a statement, or ask a question? Should we use a comma, colon, or nothing in the following sentences:

Ask, “What’s your name?”

Explain: “Today we are going to learn to say our names.”

Say “I like apples.”

The context is a teacher’s manual instructing the reader on how to manage a lesson. My author has used a colon for many of these areas, but in similar sentences with longer introductory text she has instead used a comma or no punctuation as follows:

Explain to your students, “Today we are going to . . .”

Say in your best character voice “I’m ten!”

I find myself leaning toward the colon, but I’m conflicted; as this is a teacher’s manual, there are many such sentences. After setting all instances on a page to colons, I then recoil in horror at the sight of so many colons on my screen! Is there a recommendation?

A. There is a lot of leeway for a writer in choosing punctuation before a quotation; it’s nearly impossible to make a rule. In general, a colon is more emphatic; a comma or no punctuation is less disruptive. Usually an imperative works fine with no punctuation if the quoted material serves as a short and simple direct object:

Ask “What’s your name?”

Say “I like apples.”

Note that a comma may be used in those examples as well. If the quoted material after an imperative functions as an elaboration or demonstration of the command, rather than as a direct object, a colon is more apt:

Explain: “Today we are going to learn to say our names.”