Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 2: Dialogue

Commas and Periods in Dialogue

We all love dialogue in books, but your readers will love it less if it’s punctuated awkwardly. Here is the solution to a common error in dialogue punctuation.

First, make the distinction between what I call “dialogue tags” and “action tags.”

A dialogue tag uses said or another similar speaking word.  For example, “he said,” “I asked,” or “she whispered.”  As long as you don’t get carried away with attention-grabbing synonyms like ordered, commiserated, murmured, contradicted, these dialogue tags are good because they’re short and almost invisible.  They let the reader focus on the dialogue itself.  However, you don’t want to use them with every line of dialogue, or you’ll sound repetitive and choppy.

An action tag does not contain a synonym for said.  Instead, it’s simply an action the character performs before, during, or while speaking.  Example: “Magda slammed her fist on the table,” or “Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.”  These are great because they break up the dialogue while giving either a better insight into the character or a better image of the scene as a whole.  When using an action tag, you don’t have to put in the dialogue tag—and usually should’t—because the reader understands that the person doing the action is the same person speaking.

Magda slammed her fist on the table.  “I’m not going to ignore this any longer.”
“So, you think I’m manipulating you.”  Simon carefully untangled the knotted rope.

In good writing, you use both dialogue and action tags.  But in good writing, you also remember to punctuate them correctly.     

Rule #1:  Use a comma with dialogue tags.

“I love you,” she whispered.
He said, “That’s unfortunate.”

Rule #2:  Use a period with action tags.

“I love you.”  She twined her fingers through his.
He coughed.  “That’s unfortunate.”

Miscellaneous Rules: 

When combining the two types of tags, you’ll usually need the comma.

He rose to his feet and shouted, “Not guilty!”
“Order in the court,” the judge demanded, slamming down his gavel.

If your dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, capitalize as if it were a comma.

“Do you love me?” she asked.
“Absolutely not!” he yelled.

Don’t be fooled by words like smile.

Incorrect:  He smiled, “Welcome to your worst nightmare.” 
Correct:  He smiled.  “Welcome to your worst nightmare.”

Be careful with "said" when it has its own direct object.  That makes it its own sentence, and should be punctuated like an action tag.  
Incorrect:  "I'm tired," she said it with an apologetic smile.
Correct:  "I'm tired."  She said it with an apologetic smile.
OR:  "I'm tired," she said with an apologetic smile.

The Gray Area

There is room for debate here, on some verbs like laugh, sob, spit, etc., which involve the mouth or throat, but aren’t really speaking words.  For example, I think that you can sob out words, so I can use “sob” as a dialogue tag or an action tag.  I also think you can laugh and talk (rather unintelligibly) at the same time, so I sometimes use laugh as a dialogue tag.  When you’re really angry, I think you can spit words.  Others disagree.  I believe, however, that if you make the conscious decision on a gray-area verb, it’s a matter of style, not a mistake.


“I killed him,” she sobbed. (Sounds good to me, as if she’s crying and talking at the same time.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed.  (Sounds awkward to me, like she said it and only then started crying.)
“I killed him.” She sobbed into her bloody hands. (Sounds good.  If I want to use these gray verbs as action tags, adding a little extra detail usually gets rid of the choppiness.)

Punctuation is a guide for your readers.  Make it work for you and for them.

Join me next month for more about the exciting world of punctuation.

Note that these examples and rules are for Standard American English (SAE).  Punctuation in other regions may differ.  If you have any examples of difference, we'd love to see them in the comments below.  Thanks!

Read Melinda Brasher's free short story, "A Learned Man," on Electric Spec's current issue.   It's a bit of a ghost story based on a two-page folk tale she read in a library in small-town El Salvador.  Inspiration will sneak up and whack you on the head if you're not careful.  You can also find more of her work on melindabrasher.com 


Karen Cioffi said...

Melinda, nicely put. New authors usually have a problem with the dialogue and action tags. I've debated with myself over the 'questionable' or 'grey area' tags. In my writing journey I've been told you can't cry dialogue and so on,. But, I agree with you. You can sob and speak, you can "spit" out words while fuming, you can roll over in laughter and speak. As you mentioned, it may be unintelligibly, but it's still dialogue.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks for a well-written article Melinda. I also agree that you can use some action tags with your dialogue. You can certainly laugh words like "What?

Magdalena Ball said...

Thanks Melinda, these are potentially tricky areas, made even more complicated by having different rules in different parts of the world (like whether you place the comma before or after the quotation marks).

Melinda Brasher said...

Magdalena, great point. These are Standard American English (SAE) conventions. I know that in British English, the period and comma sometimes go outside the quotation mark, if the punctuation isn't technically part of the quote. I think, however, that British fiction tends to punctuate character dialogue in much the same way as SAE. British English may use single quotes instead of double quotes, however, and may call them "inverted commas." I think there are also variances (both between and within American and British) about whether to capitalize the "he said" after an exclamation mark or question mark.

Does anyone out there have any insights on differences in English punctuation in different parts of the world?

Melinda Brasher said...

Yeah, the gray area is tricky. So do you sometimes let your characters sob dialogue, or have you shied away from it so far?

Karen Cioffi said...

So far I've avoided it, the chicken that I am. :)

Linda Wilson said...

This is a very helpful post for me, Melinda. I can be more precise now in punctuating correctly. Thank you!

Melinda Brasher said...

Exactly. I'd take issue with this:

"He was wearing the biggest hat I've ever seen, pink and sparkly," she laughed.

Instead, I'd punctuate it traditionally:

"He was wearing the biggest hat I've ever seen, pink and sparkly." She laughed.

But I have no problem with this:

"What?" she laughed.
"Pink," she giggled.

Again, others will disagree.

Debbie A Byrne said...

Thanks for the advice Melinda. Very helpful.

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Melinda,
I enjoyed reading your post about dialogue tags and action tags. You explained it very nicely. Thank you.

Never Give Up

StepmomShawn said...

As a new author, I thank you for this information. My editor has suggested I add more dialogue, and sometimes it's tricky knowing how to punctuate it properly. This will help! :)

Karen Cioffi said...

Glad you stopped by, Stepmom! The gift "Editing Books Like a Pro" has lots of dialogue tips. You can find it at the top right sidebar on this page! It will definitely be helpful.

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