How to Punctuate Dialogue

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Today, our post will cover how to punctuate dialogue.

Dialogue is paired with speaker tags and action tags.

A speaker tag is he/she said, answered, asked, shouted, exclaimed, etc.

Speaker tags indicate that someone has said something.

Usually, they start with a pronoun, but in many instances, especially when you have more than two people involved in a conversation, you will need to pair the tag with the name of the person speaking.

An action tag indicates action on the part of the character who has spoken. An example of this would be as follows:

“Dialogue.” I frowned/I laughed/I walked away/I flipped them the bird, etc. 

Speaker tags and action tags, paired with their respective pieces of dialogue, are punctuated differently.

Examples of dialogue with speaker tags and action tags:

“You know, you snore,she said. 

“I snore?” I asked. My face felt hot. 

“Yes. And you are very loud, too.” She laughed at my obvious embarrassment. “You might want to get that fixed.” 

“Oh that is just awful. I know what I’ll do; I’ll smother myself.” I hung my head and moped.

“Promise?” she asked. 

*Notice the parts you need to pay attention to are in bold*

In the first sentence, we have a speaker tag.

“You know, you snore,she said. 

Even if  the sentence in the dialogue is a complete thought and would normally end in a period, there is always a comma before the closing quotation marks (unless the sentence is a question or ends in an exclamation point).

Notice too, that the speaker tag, she said, is not capitalized. The biggest mistake I see with dialogue punctuation is capitalizing the speaker tag. That is wrong.

The reverse of this would be:

She said, “You know, you snore.”

The comma comes before the opening quotation mark, and the first word within the opening quotation mark is capitalized to indicate it is a separate, complete sentence.

Let’s look at the second exchange:

“I snore?” I asked. My face felt hot. 

“Yes. And you are very loud, too.” She laughed at my obvious embarrassment. “You might want to get that fixed.”

I don’t think I need to say much with the first sentence. The personal pronoun “I” is always capitalized, but notice in the second group of sentences, we have what is called an action tag following the dialogue, “She laughed...” is the action tag here.

The dialogue within the quotation marks that precedes an action tag is expressed as a complete, separate thought and ends with a period.

The action tag after the closing quotation mark is capitalized.

When an action tag is between two pieces of dialogue, spoken by the same person, it is ended in a period, and then the second piece of dialogue is capitalized and expressed as a complete thought.

Now, let’s say that instead of an action tag here we use a speaker tag. It would look like this:

“Yes. And you are very loud, too,” she said. “You might want to get that fixed.”

There is always a comma before the closing quotation mark before a speaker tag, and the speaker tag is not capitalized.

Since the second piece of dialogue is a complete thought, there is a period after the speaker tag, and the first word within the second opening quotation mark is capitalized.

If that second piece of dialogue were not a complete thought, it would be punctuated like this:

“Yes. And you are very loud, too,” she said,you might want to get that fixed.” 

Here the speaker tag is interrupting the dialogue, and the punctuation looks like this:

Comma before the first closing quotation mark, speaker tag not capitalized, comma after speaker tag, first word within the second opening quotation mark is not capitalized.

If you want your speaker tag to come first, it would be punctuated like this:

She said,Yes. And, you are very loud, too–you might want to get that fixed.”

The speaker tag, since it is the first word in your sentence, is capitalized. It is followed by a comma, and then the first word within the opening quotation mark is capitalized to indicate that it is a separate, complete thought.

For the last two sentences in the opening example, we have an action tag and another speaker tag:

“Oh that is just awful. I know what I’ll do; I’ll smother myself.” I hung my head and moped.

“Promise?” she asked. 

Again, you can see that the action tag is punctuated differently than the speaker tag. With an action tag, you close the dialogue with a period, and regardless of what starts the action tag, it is always capitalized. So, even if I started this action tag with a different pronoun:

“Oh that is just awful. I know what I’ll do; I’ll smother myself.” She hung her head and moped.

It is always capitalized.

Let’s contrast this with the speaker tag:

“Promise?she asked.

Even though the dialogue ends in a question mark, the following speaker tag is not capitalized. Anytime a speaker tag follows dialogue, do not capitalize it, and do not end it in a period. It will either end in a comma, an exclamation point, or a question mark. So, if you tags look like this:

“Promise?” She asked.

It’s wrong. Please stop doing that.

Okay, now that we have the mechanics of dialogue covered, my next post will cover some techniques on how to write dialogue effectively, and also how to arrange the speaker tags and action tags to convey different meanings to the reader.

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