One of the facets of writing I’ve always found to be the most challenging is dialogue. Particularly in fiction, but also in history, faction, and some other nonfiction genres, the ability to create dialogue that convinces the reader they are witnessing real conversation is invaluable. A story can limp through a weak description; it won’t survive weak dialogue.
There are many skills involved in creating memorable dialogue, but today I’m going to focus in on just one of them: punctuating tags, because there is little that brands our work “amateur” as much as getting the punctuation wrong.
Most of our public education educations—if they taught English grammar at all—did not teach us how to punctuate dialogue. They didn’t teach me anyway. What I have learned, I taught myself (and much of that has been wrong), or drew from my reading. That works, kind of, but is really inefficient. Sometimes what we need is a set of rules.
Therefore I present rules for punctuating dialogue tags.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “dialogue tags” are the little notices authors use to let the reader know who is speaking. “Arf,” she said. “She said” is the tag.
Punctuated with a comma.
When the dialogue is punctuated with a comma that separates it from the tag that immediately follows, the tag should not be capitalized and the comma goes inside the quotation mark. If the tag immediately precedes the dialogue, the comma goes after the tag, outside the quotation mark and the first word of the dialogue is capitalized.
“I’m so tired,” she said. Correct.
“I’m so tired” she said. Incorrect.
“I’m so tired,” She said. Incorrect.
He said, “Come here.” Correct
He said “Come here.” Incorrect
Punctuated with a question mark or exclamation point.
If the dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point and the tags immediately follows, you still do not capitalize the tag.
“Quit that!” she yelled. Correct.
“Quit that!” She yelled. Incorrect.
Punctuated with a period.
Sometimes a dialogue ends in a period, and the dialogue tag that follows is capitalized. Technically, these are not actually dialogue tags because they are physical actions rather than a description of saying something. These actions are called beats or description beats and they are complete sentences on their own, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period.
“I guess.” He nodded. Correct.
“I guess,” he nodded. Incorrect.
“I guess.” He nodded. Incorrect
“Happy?” She smiled. Correct.
Inserted into the middle of a sentence.
A bit more complicated is when a dialogue tag is inserted into the middle off a sentence. When this happens, the tag is set off with commas and the sentence is capitalized as if the dialogue tag weren’t there.
“Honey,” his wife called, “come here!” Correct.
“Honey,” his wife called, “Come here!” Incorrect.
However, should the speaker be uttering two complete sentences, rather than one, it is correct to have a period after the tag, followed by a capital beginning the second dialogue. It can be used to change the nuance of the scene.
“Honey,” his wife called. “Help him!” Correct.
“Honey!” his wife called. “Help him!” Correct.
When an action interrupts a quote, the tag is still set off by commas. The rest of the dialogue sentence is not capitalized.
“You really think,” he swallowed hard, “she did that?” Correct.
“You really think,” he swallowed hard. “She did that?” Incorrect.
Be careful. Only set a dialogue tag off with commas when it’s interrupting a single sentence, not just between two sentences. To tell the difference, remove the dialogue tag and punctuate the sentence correctly, then insert the tag.
Be sure what you’re using is really a dialogue tag.
Some words and expressions often seen in dialogue aren’t really dialogue tags, but are mistaken for them by less experienced authors. Words such as “nodded,” “smiled,” “grimaced,” “laughed,” and “grinned” are actions, not means of speaking. As such, they are beats, not dialogue tags and should be treated as such: separated from the dialogue with a capital at the beginning and a period at the end.
“I did it.” He beamed. Correct.
“I did it,” he beamed. Incorrect.
In more practical terms, first impressions do count, and we don’t want the first impression an editor, agent, or publisher receives when looking at our work to be “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” It doesn’t matter how groundbreaking our content is, if it isn’t read.
More than anything else, we need to want to do it right.