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English 3850: Punctuating Dialogue


One of the instant signals of an ignorant or careless writer is incorrectly punctuated dialogue. These trivial errors scream "AMATEUR!"

First, some terms:

Here is a QUOTE: "I'm not an alien." Notice the punctuation (a period, in this case) goes INSIDE the quote mark.

Here are some TAGS: she said, George replied, she screamed, they sang, he whispered, Clarissa murmured.

Most errors occur when separating the QUOTE from the TAG. Here are the rules:

1. Use a COMMA to separate the quote from the tag ONLY if the tag has a speech verb in it. Like this:

"I'm not an alien," she said.

2. Use a PERIOD to separate the quote from the tag if there's no speech verb. Like this:

"I'm not an alien."  She glared at him.

See how that works? If there's not a speech verb, the "tag" is considered a separate sentence and thus needs a period and a capital letter.

3. If the quote ends with an exclaimation or a question, that's all you need. No comma, no period. If the quote is followed by a speech-verb tag, the first word of the tag is not capitalized (unless it's a proper name or the word "I").

"I'm not an alien, you bastard!" she screamed.

But if the tag doesn't have a speech-verb, it's considered a separate sentence and you have to captialize the first letter:

"Am I an alien?"   She started crying.

So far, so good. But here's where it gets tricky:

4. If the tag interrupts a complete sentence, use commas to show that the quote isn't finished yet:

"I'm not an alien," she said, "and I wish you'd quit saying that."
(Notice the "and" is lower-case, not capital).

5. If the tag separates two complete sentences, use a capital letter to start each sentence and a period to indicate which sentence the tag goes with:

"I'm not an alien," she said.   "Sometimes you are so rude."

OR

"I'm not an alien."   She said, "Sometimes you are so rude."

The second example seems awkward because it's unusual in contemporary writing for a tag to go before the quote. You'll see it sometimes, but not often.

2 AGAIN (because this is the one people mess up most). If the tag doesn't contain a speech verb, consider it a separate sentence:

"I'm not an alien." She gave him an angry look. "Sometimes you are so rude."

NOTE: The words "smiled," "laughed," "grinned," etc., are not speech verbs. You can't "smile" a sentence.

"I'm not an alien."   She smiled.   "Sometimes you are so rude."

And by the way, here are two STUPID REDUNDANCIES: "she replied back" and "he thought to himself." Think about it and you'll see why these are redundant. Don't use them. "She said back" and "he said to himself" are correct, but why would you use them, when all you need is "she replied" and "he thought"?


NEW: THE DIRECT ADDRESS COMMA

What is the difference in meaning between the following two sentences?

Let's eat, Grandpa!
Let's eat Grandpa!
Because of the above example, two decades' worth of my students have learned to call this "the grandpa comma." More examples:
What time should we wake up Connor?
What time should we wake up, Connor?

Why did you leave, Susan?
Why did you leave Susan?

Don't be a dumbass girlfriend.
Don't be a dumbass, girlfriend.
Notice in the last example that even a nickname or epithet (like "dude," "man," "girlfriend," "babe," "fool," "sugar-doodle," "snugglebunny," or any word used to directly address someone) must be set off by commas. This is one place the "pause theory" of punctuation will often fail you, because when saying the sentence aloud, you may not hear a pause. But this comma is for the eye, not the ear; it prevents readers from misreading and misunderstanding your meaning. So USE THE GRANDPA COMMA!


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