Speech Tags, Quotation Marks, and the Meaning of Life

by | January 11, 2021 | Editing Corner | 5 comments

One of the downsides of being an editor is the inability to ignore other writers’ errors. I can be reading a thrilling erotic tale or a gripping mystery, only to be suddenly kicked out of the fictional world by a spelling, grammar or punctuation error.

(If only my own mistakes stood out so clearly!)

Anyway, in my recent reading I’ve encountered a number of authors who seem somewhat confused about how to capitalize and punctuate dialogue. While this isn’t as important as getting the grammar right (in my opinion), this sort of error can be distracting. So I thought I’d do a quick post reviewing the rules.

Speech Tags

In order to correctly punctuate dialogue, you need to understand speech tags. A speech tag is a phrase that includes a subject plus a verb related to speaking: “said”, “asked”, “exclaimed”, “commented”, and so on. The object of a sentence with a speech tag is the dialogue content itself. In many cases, the subject and speech verb can be in either order, and it’s possible, though less common, for the tag to come before the dialogue content.

“You’re the hottest little tramp who’s walked into my store in a week,” said Herve, rubbing his hands together.

“Where were you on the night of the thirty first?” Sergeant Morgan asked.

Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.”

In dialogue, speech tags serve two distinct functions. Most importantly, they identify which participant in a conversation is associated with a particular utterance. Without speech tags, dialogue can become confusing, especially if there are more than two people talking.

As a secondary function, speech tags can also convey information about the manner of speaking:

“You’re nothing but a slut,” Martin shouted.

“Please, Master – let me come,” she whimpered.

There are many speech verbs that can be used this way: “whispered”, “whined”, “blurted”, and so on. They do double duty by identifying the speaker while also giving the reader some clues about his or her emotions or state of mind.

Be careful, though. Some verbs that might seem similar to my examples are not in fact speech verbs, but writers sometimes punctuate them as if there were. For instance, “laughed”, “whistled”, “smirked”, etc. do not specify speech acts.

Also, it’s often desirable to opt for simpler, less conspicuous speech verbs (like “said”) and use actual action verbs to convey manner.

“You’re nothing but a slut.” Martin slammed his palm down on the table.

But that’s another post…

Quotation Marks

When you want to record what a character said, in his or her exact words, you must surround those words with opening and closing quotes. If you’re writing in U.S. or Canadian English, you use double quotes; British English uses single quotes.

“I’m forever true to the Red, White and Blue,” Jenna swore.

‘Give me a pint of your best bitter, Jake,’ ordered Detective Smythe.

If you need to put a quote inside another quote, you use the opposite type of punctuation.

“Who was it that said ‘even bad sex is good sex’?” asked Jeremy.

Putting the Two Together

If you don’t use speech tags, life is simple. You put your characters’ words inside the appropriate style of quotation marks, using the same punctuation you’d use for a normal sentence: full stop for a statement, question mark for a question, exclamation mark for an exclamation, and so on.

“I’d sure like to see what you have on under that dress.”

“Can you give me a hint?”

“Hot damn! You’re one hell of a looker!”

Things start to get messy (and writers start to make mistakes) when speech tags come into play, either before or after the direct quote. I see cases like this:

*** WRONG ***

Maribelle whispered “Meet me at the gazebo in twenty minutes.”

*** WRONG ***

“Meet me at the gazebo in twenty minutes.” Whispered Maribelle.

*** WRONG ***

“I’d sure like to see what you have on under that dress.” said Howie with a leer.

The rules are actually simple.

1. If the speech tag comes before the quotation, put a comma after the speech verb, then include the quotation, punctuated as you’d expect if it were standing alone.

2. If the speech tag comes after the quotation:

  1. If the quotation is a question or exclamation, punctuate the quotation as if it were standing alone. Do not capitalize the next word after the quotation marks (unless it’s a proper noun).
  2. If the quotation is a statement, end with a comma rather than a full stop as you would if it were standing alone. Do not capitalize the next word after the quotation marks (unless it’s a proper noun).

Examples of Each Rule

Rule 1:

Her Master declared, “You’re mine, pet.”

The vampire whispered, “Wouldn’t you like to live forever?”

Rule 2a:

“Wouldn’t you like to live forever?” whispered the vampire.

“Get your hands off her!” the guard shouted.

Rule 2b:

“You’re mine, pet,” her Master declared.

“I got your letter,” said Joyce.

That’s it. Easy!

I hope this is helpful. If not, you might want to check out this link.


However, they have a lot more rules than I do!

And feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Belinda LaPage

    Great summary of the basic rules for beginners, Lisabet. Well done. There’s a surprisingly abundant set of rules, conventions, and stylistic advice on dialogue, but this captures the essence in a neat and engaging way. Love the examples.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Beliinda!

      English doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes. Why should a statement be punctuated differently in dialogue than a question?

  2. larry archer

    Lots of great information and thanks for helping out us non-English teacher writers!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      There will be a test later…!

  3. Frank dunne

    Thanks Lisabet. So simple yet misunderstood rules. This will improve the reading experience for everyone.

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