EditingGrammar/Style

Mechanics 101: Punctuation & Dialog Tags by Margaret Riley

The first thing I do when I open any submission file is set the font to something I can read easily and run a macro that corrects a dozen formatting issues. If you’ve got straight quotes where I want curly quotes, or two spaces between sentences when I want one, I can fix that. I can make all your em- and en-dashes into two hyphens with a space on either side — because that’s our house style. My macro can also take out tabs, make the three little dots into ellipses, and take out all the extra spaces at the end of sentences. That’s its job.

What we can’t do with a macro is fix the kind of errors that happen when writers format dialog and dialog tags incorrectly. There’s no search and replace feature that will fix things like that, and if they’re wrong they represent hours of work which most editors aren’t likely to take on willingly. Unlike grammar, the rules for dialog and punctuation are pretty simple — and unwavering. It’s a right or wrong kind of thing. And it’s a lot easier to do them right the first time.

This is like poker, with the highest-ranking hands at the top.

  • Sentences start with a capital letter.
  • Dialog goes within double quotation marks.
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
  • Sentences end in periods.
  • Exclamations end in exclamation points.
  • Questions end in question marks.
  • Names are always capitalized.
  • Pronouns are never capitalized (unless they’re the first word in a sentence).
  • Dialog tags are never capitalized (unless they’re the first word in a sentence).

For most people the problem comes with deciding what to do with what comes after the dialog — is it a dialog tag or a new sentence?

Periods VS Commas

“I need help learning to punctuate dialog.”

This is dialog, and it’s a complete sentence, so it’s in double-quotes, it ends in a period, and the period is inside the quotes.

“I need help learning to punctuate dialog,” she said.

The same piece of dialog is no longer a complete sentence if you add a dialog tag — the she said. The dialog can stand alone, but she said cannot, so the period changes to a comma. The comma connects “I need help learning to punctuate dialog,” to she said. Because she said is part of the sentence, she is in lower case. There are no exceptions to this rule. Simple he said/she said dialog tags will always be lower case. If you change she said to Brenda said, the Brenda is a name, so it gets a capital letter, but the dialog tag is still part of the same sentence, so “I need help learning to punctuate dialog,” still ends in a comma.

“I need help learning to punctuate dialog.” Brenda turned to the chalk board.

When we replace she said with action, and that action is a complete sentence, the dialog ends with a period. There are two independent sentences.

Questions and Exclamations

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?” she asked.

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?” Brenda asked.

“You need help learning to punctuate dialog!” she said.

“You need help learning to punctuate dialog!” Brenda said.

Unlike periods, question marks and exclamation points stay the same when you add a dialog tag. She is still lower case, because dialog tags are still part of the same sentence.

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?” She turned to the blackboard.

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?” Brenda turned to the blackboard.

“You need help learning to punctuate dialog!” She turned to the blackboard.

“You need help learning to punctuate dialog!” Brenda turned to the blackboard.

She/Brenda turned to the blackboard are all independent actions, and not part of the dialog, so they’re all capitalized.

For those who like the what not to do, here are some wrong versions:

“I need help learning to punctuate dialog.” She said. (comma, lower case she)

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?” She asked. (lower case she)

“Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog,” she asked. (questions should end in question marks)

When you put the dialog tag in front of the dialog, you still need a comma.

She said, “I need help learning to punctuate dialog.”

Brenda said, “I need help learning to punctuate dialog.”

She asked, “Do you need help learning to punctuate dialog?”

Brenda asked, “Do need help learning to punctuate dialog?”

When you put the action in front of the dialog, you do not need a comma.

I tossed the damn grammar book across the room. “I need help learning to punctuate dialog.”

“Hey! Be nice to that book,” Brenda warned. “I want it back!”

 

Margaret Riley

Submissions Editor

Changeling Press LLC


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Question please. What about this one?

"My friend, Alice," she said, "needs help with dialogue. "

A