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Self-Editing Master Class: Punctuating Dialogue

Whenever I talk about my work with groups of college students or writers, I always get asked what common errors I see in the manuscripts I edit. I’m turning the answer to this question into a new segment here, which I’m calling Self-Editing Master Class (SEMC). I hope it helps to serve as a refresher or as a checklist for you, to help you make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it for publication.

Welcome to the first installment: punctuating dialogue.

The basic rules

You probably remember the basic rules of punctuating dialogue from high school English class.

  1. At the end of a line of dialogue, you should use a comma rather than a period before a dialogue tag, and it goes inside the closing quotation marks. The first letter of the first word in the dialogue tag is lowercase.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
  2. If your line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, those are not replaced with a comma, but they also belong inside the quotation marks.
    “English grammar is fun to learn!” your teacher insisted.
    “Don’t you think English grammar is fun to learn?” your teacher asked.
  3. If the dialogue tag comes in the middle of a sentence, commas should be used around the tag.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted, “if you don’t let it stress you out.”
  4. Sidebar rule: Every time a different character speaks, a new paragraph should be started.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
    “Actually, it sort of stresses me out,” Bobby offered.
    “I bet it wouldn’t be so bad if you actually studied once in a while, Bobby,” Sue teased.

Here’s where it gets a little trickier…

Beyond mistakes to the basics, a common error I see is sentences tacked on to dialogue that aren’t actually dialogue tags; instead, they’re separate actions not directly related to speech.

Now, it’s true that just using “he said” and “she said” over and over can get a little boring, and it’s tighter writing to say something like “she insisted,” rather than “she said insistently.” But words like, for example,  insisted, exclaimed, and inquired are all just descriptive synonyms for said or asked.

When the verb in the sentence after the line of dialogue is an action other than said or asked—something like laughed, or pointed, or smiled—you need to start a new sentence. For example,

“English grammar is fun to learn.” The teacher smiled. (Here, you can’t technically smile a spoken sentence, so it’s not a dialogue tag; it’s descriptive action.)

Contrast this with: “English grammar is fun to learn,” the teacher said with a smile. (Here, you use the punctuation for a tag, because said is the verb.)

Another example: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight.” Bobby sighed. (You can’t technically sigh out a sentence.) and “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight,” Bobby said with a sigh.

Some editors do let sighed go, along with verbs like grunted and huffed and laughed, arguing that they describe the tone of the speech, but my advice is, when in doubt, ask yourself if the character could technically say the sentence using the verb given. For example, a mafia goon could possibly grunt a one-word response to his boss (“Yeah,” he grunted.) but he couldn’t grunt an entire sentence, right?

Master class

One of my favorite rules in the Chicago Manual of Style (yes, I’m nerdy enough that I have favorite rules) is the one for sudden breaks in speech. For those of you following along at home, it’s rule 6.84. Getting this right is sure to blow your editor’s geeky little mind.

Here’s my paraphrase: If a character performs an action in the middle of a line of dialogue, the action is set off by em dashes, which go outside the quotation marks. (For those of you who haven’t discovered the em dash, this most glorious bit of punctuation, it’s the dash that’s usually autoformatted by Word when you type two hyphens together. I can also be found in the Symbols menu or created with alt + 0151 on the number pad of a PC. For a Mac, it’s Command + Option + a hyphen.)

This is what it looks like:

“These grammar rules are confusing”Billy pointed at his English book“and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.”

I often see a line like this tacked on as tag: “These grammar rules are confusing,” Billy pointed to his book, “and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.” But because the “tag” is action and not speech, Chicago favors em dashes to set it off.

This is also handy if you want to note a change in tone or describe the way a line is delivered in a more in-depth way:

“English grammar is fun to learn”—the rise in her vocal pitch betrayed her excitement—”if you don’t let it stress you out!”

Kinda cool, huh? Once you learn the sudden break rule, you’ll notice it in books you read and you’ll find it useful in your own writing.

Gotta question about anything I covered here? Feel free to post it below!


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