Laissez Faire

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Writes and Wrongs #2: Basic Dialogue Punctuation

When you teach you learn.

First, I want to take a tangent.  If you don’t want to read my introduction drivel, click here.

I believe in those above words.  Out of all the things I have learned and done over the years, the ones that stick are the things that I have taught to others and gone out of my way to research for the benefit of others.   On the other hand, because I am an educator, I sometimes see things written wrong so often I unknowingly take on the quirks.  It’s similar to how I have absorbed some of my husband’s redneck pronunciations to the point where people ask me more often where I’m from even though I have lived in this area my whole life!   My accent for the area has always been a bit odd because I read so much as a kid, but now it has gotten downright weird.

When I took a long hiatus from writing fiction, I took on the unique writing accents found in chatting and, later, texting.  This was in the age of Unix Talk, ICQ, AIM, IRC, MSN, and others — when <G> and <g> were common emotes.    You youngins think you invented texting and the “hashtag”.  Puh.  You haven’t known the struggle until you try texting on a dial-up.    By the way, that alternating CAPS and lowercase shite was annoying then and is still annoying.  Just. Stop.

Anyway, when I came back to writing I found that I’d forgotten a lot of rules!   It’s one thing to break a rule on purpose, it’s another to do it because you haven’t got a clue.

speechbubbles

 


The Basics 1:  How to Punctuate Simple Dialogue Without Tags

Every writer has their own way of building their dialogue.  I, for example, “hear” it in my head, I transcribe (actions and all), and I go back and fine tune it.   Other people may write in a bare-bones style and fill-in later.  Some write dialogue that breaks every rule and heavily edit.   Your style doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the basic pattern is the same for everyone.   The stronger your base knowledge, the more you are able to play.

In ‘merika, we use double quotes and end punctuation — (.)(?)(!) — goes inside direct dialogue quotes (I will explain quoting quotes later).  Think of quotes as your speech bubble that holds the words and sentences.

Visual Learners:  Ο Who’re you calling scruffy-looking. Ο
Do you dig my speech bubbles?

Who’re you calling scruffy-looking.
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!

You cannot end a dialogue quote with a comma if nothing comes after it.  A comma is a sign of a statement that must be followed by a dialogue tag (said or replied).  A comma is not allowed to hang out naked.  No commando commas!

Who’re you calling scruffy-looking,”   X bad commando comma

 

The Basics 2:  How to Punctuate with Dialogue Tags

Confine yourself to the big three: said, replied, asked.     We will discuss the other dialogue types in another lesson (they are out of favor and you are better off using Action Tags).

If the tag comes first, it is always followed by a comma.  Think of the comma as an arrow or finger  pointing to the quote.  Very much like those speech-bubble tails pointing to the speaking character.  The first word of the tag and the quote first word is capitalized as normal.  You can use said for all of the following if you wanted to.

Visual Learners: He said Ο Who’re you calling scruffy-looking. Ο 

He said,Who’re you calling scruffy-looking.
He asked, Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?
He replied,Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!

When the tag comes after the quote, only the statement (.)  period morphs into a (,) comma.  The tag is always lower case regardless of the punctuation in the quotes (unless you are using a proper noun tag like Han said).  When nothing follows, the tag needs a period because it ends the sentence.

Visual Learners:  Ο Who’re you calling scruffy-looking Ο  he said.

Who’re you calling scruffy-looking,he said.
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?he asked.
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!he replied.

 

The Basics 3:  How to Punctuate with Dialogue Tags and Action Interruptions

When an action or thought comes after the dialogue tag and you want to connect it to the quote, use a  (,) comma.  What you choose changes how the reader hears and imagines the dialogue.

Visual Learners:  Ο Who’re you calling scruffy-looking Ο  he said, crossing his arms.

Who’re you calling scruffy-looking,he said, crossing his arms.
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?he asked, thinking she was cute when angry.
Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!he replied, the tension set his jaw and he armed his weapon.

There are exceptions.  For example, no comma if you use a conjunction like “and” after the tag for the action, and if that action has an understood subject (ex. he) dependent on the tag.  We’ll get into the whys in another lesson.

Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!he replied and crossed his arms.

 

 

If the action or thought comes first, set it off with a comma (,).  Because it is not the start of the sentence anymore, the dialogue tag needs to be lower case.

Visual Learners: Crossing his arms, he said Ο Who’re you calling scruffy-looking. Ο 

Crossing his arms, he said,Who’re you calling scruffy-looking.
Thinking she was cute when angry, he asked, Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?
The tension set his jaw and he armed his weapon, he replied,Who’re you calling scruffy-looking!

Sometimes a comma isn’t needed (we’ll get into this deeper later):

He crossed his arms and said,Who’re you calling scruffy-looking.

The Basics 4:  How to Punctuate Broken Dialogue with Tags

An interruption of the quote in the middle can get a little hairy, but the main punctuation is the comma:

  1. If the first part of the quote with a dialogue tag ends in (.)(?) or (!), uppercase the first word of the other half.
  2. If the first part of the quote with a dialogue tag ends in a comma (,), lowercase the first word of the other half.

The simple sentence quote:  “Hey, Princess, who’re you calling scruffy-looking?”
(You can end the quote with period or exclamation as desired)

If you want the quote to become two sentences:

ΟHey, PrincessΟ he said. ΟWho’re you calling scruffy-looking?Ο
Ο
Hey, PrincessΟ he said crossing his arms. ΟWho’re you calling scruffy-looking?Ο

Hey, Princess, he said.Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?
Hey, Princess, he said, crossing his arms. Who’re you calling scruffy-looking?

 

If you want the quote to remain one sentence:

ΟHey, PrincessΟ he said⇐ Οwho’re you calling scruffy-looking?Ο
Ο
Hey, PrincessΟ he said crossing his armsΟwho’re you calling scruffy-looking?Ο

Hey, Princess, he said,who’re you calling scruffy-looking!
Hey, Princess, he said, crossing his arms,who’re you calling scruffy-looking.


In order to build complex dialogue, you have to have a a firm grasp of the basic rules.   If you edit your dialogue, you are likely to mess up the punctuation, so do re-check carefully.

Did this lesson help you?

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10 comments on “Writes and Wrongs #2: Basic Dialogue Punctuation

  1. J.A. Stinger
    February 8, 2016

    Reblogged this on Words Can Inspire the World and commented:
    I love it! NO COMMA COMMANDOS!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 8, 2016

      Thanks for the reblog! My favorite line is Commando Commas…lol.

      Like

  2. Matt Bowes
    February 8, 2016

    Yes, this is useful. “The tag is always lower case regardless of the punctuation in the quotes.” <— that right there. Super helpful. I'm sure my editor would have caught all those, but now she doesn't have to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Laissez Faire
      February 8, 2016

      It does feel strange to have a question mark in a quote and not capitalize the next word outside the quote! Glad to help 🙂

      Like

  3. pauljgies
    February 8, 2016

    This would be very useful… to my college students. And: who ARE you calling scruffy-looking? I’m five million years old and I’ve been teaching college since the Carboniferous and I only just started to figure out when you stick a hyphen in there (scruffy-looking) and when you don’t.

    I like to send my students to theoatmeal.com for his grammar cartoons involving T. rexes and his aunt’s hairy knuckles. There really can’t be too many grammar blogs on the internet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mediocremeg14
      February 9, 2016

      Ooh! The oatmeal grammar cartoons are the BEST!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 9, 2016

      I have read the Oatmeal just about the same time since you started teaching. LOL My favorite has to be the Alot. 🙂 Grammar Girl is my go to for things like: should I use blond or blonde? Who knew there was a difference? Thanks for stopping by !

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mediocremeg14
    February 9, 2016

    This is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

    And I agree – teaching something is the best way to learn about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 9, 2016

      I’m glad it helps! Some of the formatting is a bit off, I keep trying to fix it for readablility.

      Like

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