Ask Giff: Dialogue Tags, A Punctuation Primer

Last week I got an e-mail from a reader about punctuating dialogue. I was glad to get the question, because it’s also a pet peeve of mine. Here’s her question:

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I also do beta-reading for some of my writer friends. My problem: it seems like everyone has a different way of punctuating dialogue, and I’m at a loss to figure out what’s right. I’ve read up on the subject but I’m still kind of confused. Is there a simple explanation you can give me?

Answer: There is a simple explanation, but it’s not a short one.

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One of the modern style choices we have is substituting character actions for dialogue tags. This can be quite effective in making a sentence or scene more active. However, the punctuation needed in each case is different, and bad punctuation is one way to appear as a novice writer (as well as annoying any grammar nerds among your readers).

So, what makes a dialogue tag? There are two criteria: it must identify the speaker and describe the dialogue, though it doesn’t always have to be in that particular order. He asked, she said, John murmured or whispered, Stacey shouted or screamedthese are all dialogue tags.


I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she (identity) said (description).

I need to take a nap,” he (identity) mumbled (description).

Do you want to go out tonight?” John (identity) asked (description).

I don’t know who did it!” shouted (description) Stacey (identity).

The proper punctuation of the first two sentences shows the comma inside the closing quotes, followed by the dialogue tag. In the third & fourth sentences, the question mark or exclamation mark takes the place of the comma, again inside the quotes. If the first word after the dialogue is not a proper noun (such as John or Stacey), that word is not capitalized.

So the first thing to remember is that whatever punctuation you use for the spoken words, whether it’s a comma or ellipses, question mark or em-dash, it’s ALWAYS going to come inside the close quotes.

And what happens when you want to include a character action after the dialogue tag?

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.

You identify the speaker, describe the dialogue, then follow the dialogue tag with the additional information. The rules for punctuation stay the same.

But what about that substitution we talked about earlier, where you want to replace the dialogue tag with a character action? That’s where it all goes sideways. The wrong way is to follow the dialogue tag rules, like this:

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.

Because while “she fell into step” gives you the identity of the speaker (“she”), it does not describe the dialogue, so it doesn’t meet the criteria for a dialogue tag. Therefore, that phrase needs to become its own sentence.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.

The dialogue ends with a period within the closed quotes, and the pronoun “she” becomes the first word in a new sentence, so it must be capitalized.

More examples:

I need to take a nap,” he mumbled wearily.
“I need to take a nap.” He could feel his whole body drooping.

Do you want to go out tonight?” John asked with a grin.
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John gave her a suggestive grin.

I don’t know who did it!” shouted Stacey, then stalked away.
“I don’t know who did it!” With a final angry look, Stacey stalked away.

So, simply put: if your phrase identifies and describes the dialogue, it’s a dialogue tag (even if you add additional elements to it). If it describes a character’s action rather than the character’s words, it’s not a dialogue tag and needs to become a new sentence.

Now, who’s got another grammar/punctuation peeve?

“Ask Giff” gives you real answers to real sentence construction problems. Whether you have a general question or a specific sentence that needs help, feel free to submit it on the contact form with the subject line “Ask Giff”.

The Rules of Writing: A Built-In Paradox

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The Rules of Writing.  So many of them are subject to discussion, if not passionate argument.  The Oxford comma, the em-dash, the sentence fragment: you’re on one side or the other.  Hardly anyone stands on the fence.

Two of the most popular and oft-quoted Rules are:
1.) Use a stronger verb instead of a verb + adverb; and
2.) Never use any words other than “said”, “asked”, and “whispered” as dialogue tags.

Do you see the paradox?  To stay true to Rule #1, you must ignore Rule #2.  To stay true to Rule #2 … well, you can see where it’s going.  But strangely enough, many people are proponents of both of these Rules.  They try to sit on both sides of the fence at once.

I’m personally a great advocate of Rule #1.  Strong verbs make stronger writing.  And when an adverb shows up to modify a verb*, a writer can usually make a better verb choice and have a more effective sentence.

So for me, the firm believer in Rule #1,  Rule #2 makes no sense whatsoever.  Is “said” a stronger verb than “murmured”, “squealed” or “protested”?  Of course it’s not.  I’ve seen people who try to get around Rule #2  by sneaking in a modifying phrase: “he said in a low tone”; “she said, her voice almost a squeal”; “he asked in protest”.  But all they’re really doing is replacing one sort of modifier with another, longer one.  Wouldn’t it make sense to use the more precise verb instead?

And how about in spoken conversation?  Do you always use “he said” this, or “she said” that when telling a story?  Don’t you sometimes say, “he told me”, “she demanded”, or “they requested”?  Why should our conversation in print be subject to rules that don’t apply to live conversation?

From those in favor of Rule #2, the main argument seems to be “the dialogue should be enough to indicate the emotion.”  And I have no quarrel with using “said”, “asked”, or “whispered” when that’s the case.  But suppose, as an example, a chapter opens with a little girl crying, and this is the next line:

“Hush,” her father said.

Is that enough for you to tell whether he’s being loving, or annoyed, or threatening?  Wouldn’t “murmured”, “bit out”, or “warned” give you more precise information?

There are undeniably times when “said/asked/whispered” will do the job, and undeniably times when it won’t.  To tie ourselves to what is essentially a limiting strategy when writing is, in my opinion, self-defeating.  The English language wouldn’t have over 200 different words for “said” if no one ever used them.

So……….which side of this particular fence do you stand on?

*Contrary to popular lore, adverbs have jobs other than modifying verbs, and they don’t all end in “-ly”!


Let me first say that I believe in rules. I’m one of those people who loves to diagram sentences (yeah, I know). When too many of the rules get broken, the diagram looks just like chicken-scratch. On the other hand, sometimes it seems that rules are created just so we can have rules.

These days, two of the most common rules about writing are:

1.)  A good writer uses only “said”, “whispered”, and “asked” when creating dialogue; and

2.)  A good writer never, ever changes points of view within a chapter/scene.

Recently these rules were repeated to me by two separate and unequal sources. Now I know my style, and even if it weren’t for others pointing it out to me, I know that I do not follow these particular constraints.

So I decided to see how well the rules were observed in “real life” (or “real writing” if you prefer). I chose four books from my shelves: one was a classic; two were from NY Times best-selling authors, one current and one by an author who died a few years ago; and the last one was by an author I’m very fond of, but whose once-popular works now get very little attention. I opened the books at random and read ten pages of each.

This is what I discovered:

1.)  “Said”, “whispered”, and “asked” were used exclusively in dialogue by none of the authors. The average usage was just over 50%, with the classic being highest in adherence, and one of the NYT best-sellers being lowest. The dialogue scenes were sprinkled with a variety of terms, including: began, continued, replied, queried, challenged, demanded, shouted, barked, stuttered, told, murmured, gasped, objected, and even “squeaked”.

2.) Each author also changed their point of view within those ten pages. This time, the classic led the pack, doing it three times (and by that I mean back and forth, so if you’re feeling generous, you may want to consider it as six times). Each of the other authors did it twice, and one of them was writing in the first person, where you would not expect it to happen at all.

So what’s the moral of the story?

1.)  Rules are made up by those who don’t write well to annoy those who do;

2.)  It’s more important to write with clarity and sincerity than it is to always follow all of the rules; or

3.)  Blame Hemingway.

Feel free to state your opinion — I‘d really like to hear it. I, for one, am going to continue to ignore these rules, as well as the rule on split infinitives (but you’ve probably guessed that by now).