Punctuating Dialogue: Basics

When I get a new manuscript, certain things stand out. Voice, POV, how the author deals with certain grammar tricks. When it comes to new authors who are just discovering narration, one of the first places I find problems is in punctuating the dialogue.

So, if you want to instantly catapult your writing above the newbie stage, learn to fix some of these basic problems and definitely punctuate your dialogue right.

Wait, Dialogue?

Dialogue is where the characters talk to each other in your story. Most of the time it’s in quotation marks and there may or may not be some indicator of who’s speaking. Advanced dialogue includes indicating foreign languages and including thoughts (via telepathic communication or not). For now, we’ll just focus on making sure the period is in right place.

Is There a Speech Tag?

A speech tag is that part before or after the dialogue where you say “he said,” “she said,” “George said” or even “Betty bellowed.” This is your attribution, letting the reader know who is speaking and sometimes how they’re saying it. Speech tags require special punctuation, but we’ll get to that.

No Speech Tag

If there isn’t a speech tag, then your punctuation is the same as any other sentence. Inside the quotation marks, at the end of the sentence, will be a period, or a question mark, or even an exclamation mark.

“I want to go home.”
“Can I go home?”
“I wanna go home!”

With a Speech Tag

If there is a speech tag, then there should be a comma in there, somewhere. If the speech tag is at the front of the sentence, the comma comes after the speech tag and before the quotation mark.

Ben said, “I don’t like you.”

If the speech tag comes after the sentence, and the sentence ends in a period, the comma replaces the period.

“I’d like a coffee,” Sarah said.

But if the sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation mark, leave the question mark or exclamation mark.

“Can I get you anything?” he said.
“I hate you!” she said.

Also, note that while the dialogue is capitalized when it comes after the speech tag, the speech tag is not capitalized if it comes after the dialogue (unless you’re using a proper name, since those are always capitalized). Whether you use a comma or a question mark, do not capitalize “he.”

Action Is Not Speech Tag

One common error writers can make is to assume anything that comes after dialogue is a speech tag.

Incorrect: “I would like a coffee,” she smiled at the barista.
Correct: “I would like a coffee.” She smiled at the barista.

Smiled is not a speech tag. Asked, said, exclaimed, yelled, these are speech tags. But we can’t smile words. Smiling is an action. If it’s an action tag, punctuate it as a completely different sentence. There should be a period (or question mark or exclamation mark) in the quotation marks and the first word of the action tag should be capitalized.

Now, there are a few cases where you might not be sure if it’s an action tag or a speech tag. “She sighed” is a borderline tag that different people will treat differently. But, it’s audible. If the term you’re using isn’t a tone of voice, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s an action tag.

In all cases, when in doubt about punctuation or tag choice, you can always ask around. Your editor is here to help.

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