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.

Examples:

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”.

ASK GIFF (or: a real live Grammar Nerd wants to answer your questions

Got a grammar question? Got a sentence that needs something, but you’re not exactly sure what? Tenses don’t jive? Can’t tell if you need a colon or a semicolon?

Well, I’m that kid in school who was always “first hand up” when it was time to diagram sentences. Yeah, a real grammar nerd. Grammar makes me happy, and misuse of it drives me nuts!

So I’m offering you the chance to pose your grammar questions here. Now, I don’t mean your technical questions – there are plenty of on-line resources for that, and my favorites are listed on the “Writers’ Resources” page here.

But sometimes the technical resources (aka “the rules”) don’t help a lot in real life. I remember trying one of the “grammar checkers” and, after it had eliminated the words it didn’t like (including “complex” words, which it defined as any word over 3 syllables — simplicity, anyone?), my 14-word sentence was reduced to “Brian have home.” Not quite the idea I was trying to put across.

So I’m looking for a specific question about your sentence or paragraph that needs help. Something you know isn’t quite right, but you just can’t seem to find the answer that unravels your confusion and makes it work.

To give you an idea of how I might answer, here are a couple of real examples from real people I’ve worked with (used with their consent, of course):

Question #1:  I have two versions of this sentence, and I need to know which one is better:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappearing into the darkness as he walked down the beach.
  2. She watched him amble through the gate and as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

My Response:  In the first sentence, the tenses don’t agree. It should either be:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappear into … OR

  2. She watched him ambling through the gate and disappearing into …

But I don’t think the first sentence, even with the correct tenses, reads all that well. It seems to say he ambled through the gate as he walked down the beach. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind.

On the other hand, your second sentence already has agreement between the tenses and it’s easy to see just what you mean. However, I’d suggest eliminating “and” and using a semicolon instead. Why, you ask? Because, though the two clauses are related, each one has its own subject. In the first clause, it’s “she”, while in the second one it’s “he”.

So for me, the optimum sentence would be: She watched him amble through the gate; as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

Question #2:  I’m having trouble with this sentence, and can’t figure out how to make it better:

He had a square face with a wide nose and a strong jaw-line, his dark-brown hair pronouncing his warm blue eyes.

Response:  I understand exactly what you mean to say. The problem is that “pronounce” as a verb means “to say”. You could go with “his dark-brown hair made his warm blue eyes more pronounced” or “his dark-brown hair played up his warm blue eyes” (or even “the warmth in his blue eyes”, if the other sounds too sing-song to you.)

So what do you say?   Want some help with a sentence, a comma, a verb? Send your question through the ABOUT ME/CONTACT page; I’ll post at least one every week (anonymously if you like), and give it my best shot!

Oh, goody! GRAMMAR!!!!