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
1. Use a COMMA to separate the quote from the tag ONLY if the
tag has a speech verb in it. Like this:
not an alien," she said.
Use a PERIOD to separate the quote from the tag if there's no speech
verb. Like this:
not an alien." She glared at him.
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.
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").
not an alien, you bastard!" she screamed.
the tag doesn't have a speech-verb, it's considered a separate
sentence and you have to captialize the first letter:
I an alien?" She started crying.
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:
not an alien," she said, "and I wish you'd quit saying that."
(Notice the "and" is lower-case, not capital).
If the tag separates two complete sentences, use a capital letter to
start each sentence and a period to indicate which sentence the tag
not an alien," she said. "Sometimes you are so rude."
"I'm not an alien." She said, "Sometimes you are so rude."
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."
The words "smiled," "laughed," "grinned," etc., are not speech verbs.
You can't "smile" a sentence.
not an alien." She smiled. "Sometimes you
are so rude."
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!
Because of the above example, two decades' worth of my students have learned to call this "the grandpa comma." More examples:
Let's eat Grandpa!
What time should we wake up Connor?
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!
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.
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