Dialogue Tags and Punctuation

One of the most common technical writing issues that appears in manuscripts is improper use of dialogue tags. This frequently coincides with incorrect punctuation for dialogue. Since most novels contain a significant amount of dialogue, this can represent hours of required editing to prepare a manuscript for publication. Learning how to properly present dialogue can actually save you days of edits because you, yes you–the writer–have to actually fix your mistakes in your manuscripts.

Punctuation

Dialogue is typically surrounded by quotation marks. I say typically because there are some texts that do not use quotation marks. They are the exception* rather than the rule.

  • “I told you not to jump on the couch.”
  • “Can you pick up milk on the way home?”
  • “Did you pay the electric bill?”

Use a comma when a dialogue tag precedes or follows dialogue.

  • Sue said, “I told you not to jump on the couch.”
  • “I picked up milk,” John said.
  • Amy said, “Please pick up your dirty dishes.”
  • “I paid the electric bill,” Mark said.

Use commas when a section of dialogue continues after inserted action.

“How many times do I have to tell you,” Mark yanked Billy’s hand back from the burner, “not to touch the stove?”

Use single quotes to present a quote within dialogue.

“Sandra always says, ‘Don’t borrow trouble,’ so I try not to worry about other people’s problems.”

Start a new paragraph when a new person starts speaking.

“Can you pick up milk on the way home?” Frank asked.

“I told you I have a doctor’s appointment,” Mary said.

Match dialogue with the character referenced in narrative. It’s confusing when the action in a paragraph follows a character who isn’t speaking.

Compare Version 1:

“I met with Jimmy’s teacher today.” Frank frowned and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m going to start volunteering in her class tomorrow.”

“That’s nice, Mary. How’s Jimmy doing in school?” Frank said.

Version 2:

“I met with Jimmy’s teacher today,” Mary said.

Frank frowned and folded his arms across his chest. Before he spoke, Mary continued.

“I’m going to start volunteering in her class tomorrow.”

“That’s nice, Mary. How’s Jimmy doing in school?” Frank said.

When you aren’t using a tag, be sure to close your dialogue with a period or appropriate punctuation. Do not use commas unless you use a dialogue tag or the dialogue is a sentence that continues after inserted narrative.

Incorrect:

“I went to the store today,” Mary set the bags down on the counter.

Correct:

“I went to the store today.” Mary set the bags down on the counter.

Also Correct:

“I went to the store today,” Mary set the bags down on the counter, “and bought some lactose-free milk for you to try.”

Don’t close dialogue when the same speaker is talking in the next paragraph.

Incorrect:

“I went to the store today and got the things you asked me for.”

“You won’t believe who I saw when I was there.”

Correct:

“I went to the store today and got the things you asked me for.

“You won’t believe who I saw when I was there.

For more tips, refer to this article.

Dialogue Tags

Avoid unusual dialogue tags. Said/says or asked/asks should be your primary dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are essentially invisible. The primary purpose of the tags is to ensure that the reader knows who is speaking. Unusual dialogue tags stand out to readers and can be disruptive and distracting.

To avoid excessive use of said you can replace dialogue tags with action in the narrative.

Every editor will have their preferences. Mine is that writers avoid bizarre, distracting dialogue tags. If your characters are constantly sputtering, murmuring, hissing, sneezing and shouting words I’m either going to reject the manuscript outright or make you change your dialogue tags. Rare tags should be used sparingly.

Oh, and one extra note on this subject. It’s amazing how many people use dialogue tags that are impossible. A dialogue tag identifies the speaker and refers to how they speak. Can people sneeze sentences? Can they snort them?

Incorrect:

“I warned you,” Julia snorted. “But you wouldn’t listen.”

Correct:

“I warned you.” Julia snorted. “But you wouldn’t listen.”

For more tips on writing dialogue and dialogue tags, check out this article.

Note: These articles on writing contain tips. They are not manuals, which would be hundreds of pages in length. They are a general guide for some issues related to the topic and not intended to provide exhaustive coverage on the topic.

*Exceptions. They are the exception, not the rule. If you are beginning your career as a writer be very careful about presuming you’re the exception to all the rules. 99.9% of the time you aren’t.

Final note: Typos happen to everyone, no matter how many books you have published. An odd typo isn’t going to be cause to determine a writer doesn’t understand a specific grammatical rule or how to present certain types of text. However, when issues are pervasive it is an indication that the writer has not mastered the technical or grammatical requirements for their text. The reason we provide insight here is to help writers correct their mistakes before submitting, or for them to determine that they would be incompatible with our editing requirements. This will save both of us time because writers who will not edit or will not comply with a specific editor’s preferences should not submit to them.