Punctuating Dialogue, and Other Interesting Things*

*I lied about the other interesting things. Sorry.

I talk a lot about the importance of cleaning up your own garbage in your MS before you send it to an editor. You need an editor, no debate. But there are some things anyone can do beforehand to save time and money: see my posts on self editing here on development edits and here for line edits.

One of the most common things I deal with as an editor is incorrectly punctuated speech. A lot of people apparently don’t know the conventions, or how to use them, and I see an awful lot of this in published books. (NB: Some authors are not native speakers, didn’t get the sort of education that teaches you this stuff, or are dyslexic or otherwise neurodivergent. No sneering, please.)

Speech punctuation is really important for clarity of reading. And if you consistently get it wrong in a MS, it creates literally hours of pointless, grubbing, repetitive work for an editor. (Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap.) That will be time for which you may be charged if self pubbing; the editor will doubtless miss some however hard she tries, so your MS will be riddled with errors; most of all, it is incredibly distracting. Editors are only human. If we become focused on the detail work of tidying up your speech punctuation we can easily miss bigger problems.

speech 1

Speech punctuation is something you can learn to get right. It will support your meaning, and free up your editor to do better things.

I’m now going to go over the real basics in mind-numbing detail. Some may think this is Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious; feel free to move on. I can only say, I have spent weeks and months of my life fixing this stuff, and read (paid for) far too many books in which it has not been fixed.

An X will indicate an example that is wrong diddly wrong.

***

Standalone speech

A speech unit can stand on its own, ending with a full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, ellipsis or dash.

“Here is the gun.” [statement]

“He’s got a gun!” [exclamation]

“Where is the gun?” [question]

“I did have a gun, but…” [broken speech: tailing off]

“I did have a gun, but—” [broken speech: interruption by self or other]

Any of these can act as a complete sentence by itself. If that’s the case, the next sentence is a new sentence and begins with a capital letter.

“Here is the gun.” The man held it out.

“Where is the gun?” He looked baffled, as well he might.

***

Speech with speech tag

Let’s say you want to add a speech tag to the speech. That turns the standalone utterance into one part of a single sentence (in which the sentence is made up of utterance plus speech verb). You may have to change the punctuation to indicate this.

Statement

“Here is the gun,” he said.

Here, the full stop has changed to a comma because the unit “utterance plus speech verb” is one sentence. For avoidance of doubt, it’s just the last sentence in the dialogue that needs amending.

“Here is the gun. Please shoot Edith,” he said.

This is how it works for any speech tag, not just ‘said’.

“Here is the gun,” he snapped.

What you will very often see is this:

X “I have the gun.” He said.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, handing it to her.

That’s wrong. “He said” is not a complete sentence. It needs either an object (see below) or the speech to make a complete sentence.

Either you punctuate these as one sentence, utterance plus tag:

“Here is the gun,” he said, handing it to her.

“I have the gun,” he snapped.

Or you set as standalone utterances followed by standalone sentences that tag the speech—that is, two sentences.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her as he spoke.

“I have the gun.” He sounded irritable, as though he thought she should have known.

.

Exclamations, questions, interruptions, hesitations

These don’t need the punctuation changing when speech tags are added. The speech tag becomes part of a single sentence as above, utterance plus tag, lower case.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

“Where is the gun?” he asked.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” he said.

“But the gun—” she began.

If the tag is a standalone sentence, punctuate as such.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words and heard them echo off the cathedral walls.

“Where is the gun?” He asked the question with a bored detachment that gave her chills.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” He shuffled his feet as he spoke.

“But the gun—” She snapped her mouth shut at his look.

 

***

Speech Tags that Aren’t

There is a tendency for authors to use things that are not speech verbs as speech tags. So we see, e.g., ‘smiled’ or ‘nodded’ or ‘grimaced’ used as speech verbs.  Please watch out for this. If it isn’t a thing you do with your mouth (or fingers, in sign language) that produces words, it isn’t a speech verb, because nodding and smiling don’t create words. If you would like to argue with me about this, carry on, as long as you do so only by means of nodding, smiling, and grimacing.

X “Here is the gun,” he smiled.

Try the following instead:

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling.

“Here is the gun.” He smiled.

We also see this usage extended to action markers.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

That is two sentences—a standalone utterance followed by a new sentence. Don’t punctuate it like a speech tag if it’s not one.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

***

All this excruciating detail adds up to one simple question: Is it one sentence or two? Is it a standalone utterance followed by a standalone sentence, or is it one sentence consisting of an utterance plus a speech tag? Easy way to check: read the second sentence alone and ask yourself if it works as a complete sentence in English.

The following aren’t English sentences:

X He said, and handed it to her.

X He said.

Therefore punctuate as one sentence along with the speech.

“Here is the gun,” he said, and handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, and handed it to her.

The following are English sentences

He handed it to her.

He smiled.

Therefore punctuate as two sentences with the speech.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

Notice that it makes a difference if the speech verb takes an object. This frequently trips people up. In the following examples using “she shouted”, I’ve marked the object of the speech verb in bold italic.

Here the speech verb doesn‘t work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

Without speech:

X She shouted.

Here, the speech verb has an object and thus does work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

Without speech:

She shouted the words.

Therefore, you need two sentences if the speech verb has a separate object, or one sentence if it’s referring to the speech itself.

X “He’s got a gun!” she shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

***

Oh, and if you know all this and you mean to type, “Hello,” she said, but you accidentally type a full stop instead of a comma, Word will autocorrect to “Hello.” She said anyway, despite your best intentions. So that’s good.

***

MASSIVE APPENDIX KLAXON

Anna Butler in the comments reminds me that dialogue tags can be tricky the other way around. A brief summary, then:

There are three basic forms of tagged speech as above: simple tag, tag with action, non-speech marker.

“Here is the gun,” he said. [simple tag]

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling. [tag with action]

“Here is the gun.” He smiled. [Marker, not a speech tag]

If presenting these the other way around, i.e. tag first, just remember that the speech unit doesn’t alter.  If the speech unit is a sentence with a capital letter, it stays that way–there is no reason for it to change. Here the unit is “Here is the gun.”

He said, “Here is the gun.”

He said, smiling, “Here is the gun.”

He smiled. “Here is the gun.”

And therefore

He asked, “Where is the gun?”

He said, “Well, there was a gun somewhere…”

She began, “But the gun—”

***

Okay? Right. Something more interesting next time, honest. [Edit: Sorry, also a lie. Next time: how to break speech!]

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­________________________________

KJ Charles just finished an enemies-to-lovers story about a fraudulent spiritualist with murder, plots, hate sex, Victorian sensation, and the most bastardy hero she ever wrote. She felt you’d rather hear about the minutiae of dialogue punctuation because she is a marketing genius.

Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, which is about, among other things, an 1805 Lonely Hearts bureau and an unexpected road trip to Gretna.  It is also more interesting than this post. Although, almost anything would be.

29 replies
  1. Zarah
    Zarah says:

    I always thought I had a pretty firm grasp of the basics of punctuation, not masters level, but pretty good. But the section above about exclamations and questions, I did not know it was kosher to include the exclamation or question mark and then not capitalize. See, I learned something. Thank you.

    Note: Having said that I thought I had a grasp of punctuation means I’m now agonizing about if I ironically made a mistake in the same sentence. I know my own habit of littering commas everywhere, after all. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Mel
    Mel says:

    Oh gosh, thank you! This was very helpful. As a non-native speaker I struggle with this a little and no one has explained it to me so far. (I probably could have googled this but… you know how that is.) I’m not an author but a reviewer so I don’t write dialogue that often, but now I feel like I finally don’t have to avoid it 😉

    If I can make a request… Commas are also kinda difficult. I’d take an explanation there, too 😉

    Reply
      • Mel
        Mel says:

        I think I’ve got the Oxford comma covered 😉 US vs UK? Hmmm. To be honest, I have no clue what I’m writing but I think I leaned British English at school.

        My main problem is whether to put a comma before words like but, because, so etc… and also words like when and if—although I think I understand it for if.

        Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          Honestly, that completely depends on the sentence. :/ There is no blanket rule applying to all cases. Really you just need to wonder if a pause is required.

          I blog because I must.
          I blog, because I like blogging, but also because it gets me out of writing the new book.

          Reply
  3. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    This is very helpful, thank you!

    I’ve been trying to master English punctuation for a while, and it’s really frustrating that there’s no complete, comprehensive and reliable resource on English punctuation that is available for free in the Internet. Which contributes a lot to authors’ blunders with commas, I think.
    I mean, if you compare it to my native language, where you have diffirent editions of an official, approved by Ministry, etc. comprehensive guide to grammar and punctuation just lying out there on various sites for anyone to use for free, as well as another site with a very thourough guide and a team of experts who answer questions about various difficulties on case by case basis, also for free.
    While in English it’s mostly assorted blogs, sites that cover only basic stuff and often contradict each other and Chicago Manual of Style that you have to pay money to consult. Oh, and ‘go with your gut”- the go-to rule for most of the more complicated stuff.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      English is pretty monstrous in a lot of ways. I’ve heard it said that its great global advantage is that it’s very easy to be comprehensible while speaking it badly. (I’d have thought cultural imperialism had a role too but whatever.) But it is a loose, baggy, flexible beat, and despite the best efforts of the ghastly CMOS, resistant to imposition of rules and manuals.

      Reply
  4. Anna
    Anna says:

    One thing I’ve noticed is the increasing number of people who take the idea of dialogue + tag = a single sentence too far. They’re usually okay with the usual form of the tag following the dialogue:
    “Here is the gun,” he said..

    But often what I’ve seen is where the tag *precedes* the dialogue, they say to themselves “this is one sentence, so I can’t start the dialogue with a capital letter because does not compute.” (See what I did there? Grins). I see all too much of:
    He said, “here is the gun.”

    Makes me shudder.

    Reply
  5. Selene
    Selene says:

    What if the spoken sentence is cut in two by the tag or beat, like:

    “No need to shout–” He looked about worriedly. “–quite so loudly.”

    “No need to shout,” he said, “quite so loudly.”

    (Bad example, but you know what I mean…)

    Pretty sure my attempt at punctuation above is wrong. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Ireadandwrite
    Ireadandwrite says:

    Hi Ms. Charles,

    Love your books, especially the Magpies and Society of Gentlemen series.

    I have a question about commas and whether they appear within or outside quotation marks. This is what I’ve read.

    In American English, the comma appears within the quotation marks, as it does in your example.
    “Here is the gun,” he said.

    In British English, the comma appears outside the quotation marks unless it punctuates the dialogue itself.
    “Here is the gun”, he said. (The comma separates the dialogue from the dialogue tag)
    “Here is the gun,” he said, “and I’d ask you handle it with care.” (The comma punctuates the dialogue).

    I’m from India and we studied British English. I have always used the BE punctuation. Does it matter? Your thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Your second example isn’t right. British English uses: “Here is the gun,” he said. The comma remains within the dialogue.

      There are many circumstances, especially with quotes within quotes, where British and American English vary. You also find some American publishers working with British authors insisting on British spelling but American punctuation. IMO the key is for any individual text to pick its punctuation rules and stick to them…

      Reply
        • KJ Charles
          KJ Charles says:

          That Grammarly example is nonsense. What are they even talking about? Are they getting mixed up with use of quotations within dialogue? Are they on crack? Who knows.

          *edit* Looking at it again: yes, they have confused the concept of “quotation” with the concept of “text within quotation marks”. <= as you see, British usage there is to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks around the quotation. American would be to say "text within quotation marks." That's a really incoherent and poorly written article, wow. Extremely unhelpful to readers. :/

          Reply
          • Ireadandwrite
            Ireadandwrite says:

            It’s dangerous that they’re purporting to be “The world’s most accurate grammar checker” (from their website). There’s no substitute for human eyes.

            Thank you, again. I look forward to the next post on the subject.

  7. SandyCo
    SandyCo says:

    This was great! I knew most of these rules, but it’s always nice to have a refresher course. 🙂 I love the lesson on speech verbs! However, what I really want to know is: What happened to the gun? 😀

    Reply
  8. LC
    LC says:

    Ah this is a beautiful explanation! I’m lucky, in that I have the intersections of privilege that worked out to me already knowing this stuff, but this is a clearer run-down than I’ve seen in a very long time. Next time someone asks me to explain how you punctuate dialogue, I’ll send them here!

    Reply
  9. Jen Erik
    Jen Erik says:

    Thanks. I don’t write, but it’s nice to know the rules for day-to-day usage.

    The education system was going through a ‘they’ll pick up the rules of grammar as long as they read enough’ phase when I was in primary school. I read more than enough, and not so.

    (I worry about commas a lot: Terry Pratchett has a character recognise another’s writing through his “wanton cruelty to commas”, which hits a little close to home.)

    Is there a publication date for ‘Wanted, a gentleman’?

    Reply
  10. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    Yes yes yes yes yes. I spent the first five years of my editing career working for publishers of novels, and I was astounded at how many people didn’t learn this. I have to think that years of reading voraciously, which is a habit all novelists should have, would cure the problem, by virtue of constantly seeing how it’s done. But nope.

    Thank you for spelling this out in such mind-numbing detail. I could never find the time/energy/patience to write a post like this, and now I don’t have to. I can just share yours.

    Reply

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