Showing posts with label how to punctuate dialog. Show all posts
Showing posts with label how to punctuate dialog. Show all posts

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 3: Commas in Participial Phrases

Commas with Participial Phrases

Good writing is about more than grammar and punctuation.  It's about great characters, difficult decisions, high stakes, and insight into the human condition.'s also about good grammar and punctuation.  Sometimes, important marks gets omitted, like the poor little comma in the illustration here.  Perhaps the omission is in the effort to make writing smoother.  Unfortunately, it often has the opposite effect.  Here's one type of common omission..   

When you have an independent clause (“Nathan stumbled along in front of the guard”), followed by a dependent clause starting with an "–ing" verb (“looking for ways to escape”), ask yourself whether you can stick who was/that was in the middle.  Does it still make sense? 

Example 1:
Test:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard WHO WAS looking for ways to escape.  Um…the guard was looking for ways to escape?  No, Nathan was looking for ways to escape.  You therefore need a comma in the middle to indicate that the subject of the first clause is also the one doing the second clause. 

Correct:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard, looking for ways to escape.
Incorrect:  Nathan shuffled along in front of the guard looking for ways to escape.

Example 2:  I sat on the sofa sagging in the corner.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS sagging in the corner.  Makes sense.  No comma.

Example 3:  I sat on the sofa massaging my ankle.
Test:  I sat on the sofa THAT WAS massaging my ankle.  Cool sofa!  I want one.  But really, that’s not what you meant at all. The sofa wasn't massaging your ankle.  You were.  So you need the commas before the –ing.

Correct:  I sat on the sofa, massaging my ankle.

Example 4: “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone looking in horror at the fire.
Test:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone THAT WAS looking in horror at the fire.  Hmm…that's a really smart phone.

Correct:  “Come pick me up,” Sarah demanded through the phone, looking in horror at the fire.

Use the "THAT WAS" test: 
If you can stick that was in the middle and it still makes sense, no comma.
If you stick in that was and it changes the meaning, put a comma between the clauses.

Note:  It works in other situations too.  Other adjective or participial phrases modifying a subject earlier in the sentence have this same comma pattern.

Example 6:  She continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings oblivious to the threat at her front gate. 
Test:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings WHO WERE oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  Technically, the plants were oblivious, but you probably mean that Liz was oblivious.

Correct:  Liz continued pushing dirt down around the seedlings, oblivious to the threat at her front gate.  

Often this mistake just requires that your reader pause a moment and re-evaluate, but sometimes it leads to mass confusion.  "John walked up to the man kissing the belly dancer."  Obviously the man was kissing the belly dancer.  If you meant that John was kissing the belly dancer, your readers aren't going to understand, so put in the comma.

NOTE:  If you're a person who doesn't use any commas unless absolutely necessary, you can sometimes omit this comma.  However, if there's any possibility that your reader will misunderstand, it's best to follow the rule and include it.   

Want more punctuation tips?  
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 1:  Commas Save Lives; the Vocative Comma
Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher writes mainstream short stories, science fiction, fantasy, and travel articles.  To find her work online, in print, or as e-books, explore her website:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

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 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 1: The Vocative Comma

Commas Save Lives

Your story is written.  You have compelling characters, a rich setting, deep symbolism, and a perfectly twisty plot.  You're ready to share your creation with the world.  But take a moment to consider the underrated art of punctuation.

Punctuation isn't a ridiculous torture device invented by English teachers.  It's a guide for your reader.  Used properly, those little commas, periods, and quotation marks help your reader interpret your words correctly the first time.  After all, you masterpiece isn't a masterpiece if people keep getting tripped up by punctuation (or lack thereof). 

Today we'll consider just one little rule, simple but often ignored.

The Vocative Comma:
When you address someone or something directly, use commas to set off the name or title. 
    Your car is ready, Mr. President.
    Alex, turn off that horrid music.
    At the end of the day, folks, the only thing that matters is how many people we help.
    Stupid computer, can't you just work right this once?

When authors forget this rule, at best the result is clunky or awkward.  At worst, it creates an entirely different meaning.  Here's the most classic example: 
           Let's eat Grandpa.
           Let's eat, Grandpa.
If your character is a heartless cannibal, the first version is fine.  Otherwise, you need the comma.

More Examples:

I don’t know Mom (character denying any familiarity with his mother)
I don't know, Mom (character telling his mother that he doesn't know something)

You are Sigmund.  (Revealing to an amnesiac that his name is Sigmund)
You are, Sigmund.  (Answering Sigmund's question, "Who's the crazy one here?")

Children put your toys away.  (You have very young servants who clean up your toys for you)
Children, put your toys away.  (You're telling your kids to put their toys away). 

I killed, John (character admitting to John that he killed someone)
I killed John (character admitting to the police that he murdered John)

You called me father (I'm not really your father, but it touches me that you consider me like a father.)
You called me, father.  (You're my dad, and I'm returning your phone call.)

I'll see you in February June. (You're a little confused about dates)
I'll see you in February, June (You have an appointment in February with your friend June)

And that man is the truth. (You're apparently looking at the god of truth or something)
And that, man, is the truth. (Man, I'm telling the truth)

Don't marry, Alice (Alice, stay single!  Marriage is for the birds.)
Don't marry Alice (Alice is bad news.  Don't marry her.  Marry me instead.)

Conversely, if you use the comma to set off a name or title when you're not addressing someone directly, you get results like this:

Those irresponsible cows!  Why won't they keep their dogs under control?

If you want your masterpiece to shine, pay attention to punctuation, and join me next month for more common punctuation errors.

Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher wrote the cover story in this month's edition of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.  Check out the artwork here.  She loves writing, but can't read anymore without unintentionally editing, and loves a good punctuation or grammar joke.  Nerd power!  Check out her author page at Amazon.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dialog that Delivers

Dialog is such an integral part of writing and when it's good
your writing soars,
so when it is bad,
well let's just say
it does the opposite.

Here's ten tips to keep your dialog from sounding false, too formal or flat.

1. Listen: You will often find me at the local malls or in coffee shops listening to people and writing down snippets of conversations. Why? I find it's the best way for me to review exactly how people talk.  

2. Read your dialog out loud: If you read your dialog out loud and it sounds stiff you know you've got it wrong. Easy fix: check your dialog and use contractions whenever possible. Most of us speak using contractions and shorter sentences.

3. Don't talk too much: Keep your dialog short and snappy and you'll find you keep your readers happy. Long passages of dialog are difficult to read.

4. Break up dialog with action: To prevent talking too much, break up dialog with action. Have your character sit, stand, stretch or do yoga poses. Have them carry, settle, sigh and lean. Have them do anything that will keep your reader interested. 

5. Don't use dialog to tell info already known: Pet peeve  #1 is dialog that tells the reader a lot of stuff that the other character should know already. For example: "Remember how last year when we went to the cabin and we sat on the porch. How the lake looked so calm and then the storm rose and a tornado took the house next door completely away? The whole building gone, just like that. I'd never been so frightened in my life. You said you hadn't either."Dialog might not be the way to give your reader all that information. In fact, I'm sure it isn't.

6. Don't overdo unique tags: Readers tend to skip right over he said/she said, which is a good thing. They stop long enough to get their bearings, but are not distracted. Overdoing unique tags brings focus to the tags and away from your dialog. Use sparingly: questioned, asked, inquired, squealed, squeaked, spoke, snarled, stammered, etc. 

7. Cut out unnecessary responses: I know you say, "Hello," and then your friend says, "Hello." Or you say, "Do you want coffee?" and your spouse says, "Yes," but in dialog you can often refrain from using "hello," "goodbye," "Yes, and "No." Instead, keep the dialog and action moving.

8. People argue: Yes, that's what happens in conversations. People argue and try to get their point across and insist they are right. This creates conflict. Conflict is good. Use it in your dialog whenever you can.

9. Create distinct voices: Work to distinguish all your characters by their voices. You can do this with word choice, the order in which words are spoken or by using dialect. Word of advice: go easy on dialect. A word or two is all that is necessary to let us know they are Scottish, French or from The South.

10. Finally, punctuate correctly: 
"I'm sure that's not what happened," she said. Comma inside the final quote, lower case "s" on she. "I'm sure that's not what happened." She rose. Period inside the final quote and upper case "S" on she. 
"I'm sure that's not what happened!" she said. Exclamation inside quote, and lower case "s" on she.
"I'm sure that's not what happened!" She rose. Exclamation inside quote, and upper case "S" on she.
"I'm sure that's not what happened," she said, "at least that's not how I remember it." When the sentence continues, use commas inside final quotes and after "said." 
Use single quotes inside double quotes if you are quoting someone else within the quote. 

Keep these tips in mind and you'll find yourself writing dialog that rocks your reader's world!

D. Jean Quarles is a writer of Women's Fiction and a co-author of a Young Adult Science Fiction Series. Her latest book, Flight from the Water Planet, Book 1 of The Exodus Series was written with coauthor, Austine Etcheverry.

D. Jean loves to tell stories of personal growth – where success has nothing to do with money or fame, but of living life to the fullest. She is also the author of the novels: Rocky's Mountains, Fire in the Hole and, Perception. The Mermaid, an award winning short story was published in the anthology, Tales from a Sweltering City.

She is a wife, mother, grandmother and business coach. In her free time . . . ha! ha! ha! Anyway, you can find more about D. Jean Quarles, her writing and her books at her website at

You can also follower her at or on Facebook

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