Friday, August 17, 2012

Punctuation 101: Dialogue Tags

by Jill Williamson

This may be review for some of you. But I'd like to go over this for those of you who have some confusion about when to use a comma or period or what when writing dialogue.



First of all, there are two types of dialogue tags: “said” tags and “action” tags.

Said Tags

A said tag assigns the dialogue to a speaker by using the word “said” or a variation of that word (asked, yelled, whispered, etc). A said tag is connected to the dialogue with a comma, unless the dialogue is a question or requires an exclamation point. When using a said tag, the pronoun must be lowercase unless you are using a proper name. Pay attention to the underlined parts of the examples below for proper punctuation.



Sample said tags:    

“I’m sorry,” the girl said.     


“I am the President of the United States,” Abraham said.   
  
“What do you want?” she asked.   
  
“What do you want?” Kate asked.    

“Leave me alone!” he screamed.    

“Leave me alone!” Mike screamed.     


“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said, “but I’m one of them.” (In this example, the said tag interrupted the dialogue, so a comma was used on the other side of the said tag since the sentence wasn't over yet. If you do this, make sure the interruption falls in a natural place for your character to pause. Read the dialogue out loud to see what sounds best.)       


“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said. “I’m one of them.” (Here the said tag came between two complete sentences.)       Mindy took a deep breath and said, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’m one of them.” (The “Mindy took a deep breath” part of the example is what's called an action tag. But if you combine action with a said tag, like I did in this example, you need to punctuate the sentence like you would for a said tag.)

Action Tags

An action tag is a complete sentence that identifies the speaker by what they are doing. Because we see a character’s action in the same paragraph as dialogue, we know they are the speaker. Since action tags are sentences, they are punctuated like sentences.

Sample action tags:     



Krista rolled her eyes and sighed. “What do you want, Paul?”   
  
“Get out!” Beth slammed the door in her mother’s face.    

“If you want to come, get in.” Kyle opened the car door. “Just don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.”     


“If you want to come, get in,” Kyle opened the car door, “but don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.” (This example used an action tag to interrupt the sentence.)



In special cases when an action interrupts dialogue in a quick way, you can use em dashes to set this off. Since the break belongs to the sentence, rather than the dialogue inside, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.     


“Before we start”—the knight plunged one of the blades into the grassy soil—“we need to go over the basics.”


Any questions? And tricky sentences you're unsure how to punctuate?

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, Jill! It's nice to have a refresher sometimes.
    ~Sarah

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  2. Thanks alot! This is something I always have lots of trouble with, and could never get it explained to me. Deffinately saving this post.

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  3. Wow! Thank you so much for this! The punctuation needs concerning said and action tags has always confused me. This explained it really well for me, and was quite easy to understand! Thank you, Mrs. Jill!

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    1. You're welcome, Kelsey! I'm glad it was helpful!

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  4. This helps a lot, thank you!
    ~Amo Libros

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  5. Dialogue tags are something that's never troubled me before but I work with numerous young authors who lack in this department, and I am going to be referencing this post a lot. You've explained this so nice and simple. Thanks, Jill!

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  6. Yes, thank you Jill! This is really helpful! Actually, could you do a post on general punctuation? Actually--comma usage? I could really use a refresher on that one. :)

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  7. Thank you very much for this. Personally, I'm a punctuation geek and usually don't have much trouble with it, but it's a great reference to have on hand.

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  8. This is great! I'm im Portugal and our dialogue tags are completly different. This is actually very usefull for when i'm writting in English, for exemple, for the go teen writers contest's. Anyway, thank you so much for this post!

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    1. You're welcome, Bruno! How interesting that different countries punctuate differently.

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  9. Thanks for the post! I'm not sure if I've ever read a sentence like this one: “If you want to come, get in,” Kyle opened the car door, “but don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.” Am I, like, phrasing that wrong in my mind so that it sounds like a mistake? It feels like there still needs to be a speech tag or something.

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    1. nope, I agree! I feel like it should say "Kyle SAID as he opened the car door". The original is probably correct, I think it just sounds a bit awkward.

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    2. Yeah, it's correct, though I don't like using commas for that type of interruption. I prefer the em dash interruption.

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    3. I've always thought that people who use commas for a quick action tag were doing it wrong, but apparently it's right. I agree, though: I prefer the em dash method -- it makes more sense to me.

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  10. Thanks so much Jill! Punctuation can be quite tricky at times for me. This is really helpful, and I think I've been doing at least one of these things wrong. Thank again!

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  11. Thanks for the post, Jill. I always get my punctuation wrong and it was good just to read over a refreshing 'brain-jogger' to help me remember how to write correctly! :)

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  12. Omg I just googled this earlier today! You explain it way better... Thank you.

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  13. You are all very welcome! I'm glad to be back. I've missed you guys! :-)

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  14. Very helpful! Thanks so much for posting this Jill. :)

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  15. Thank you! This was very helpful! :)

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