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.
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…
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:
- 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).
- 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
Her Master declared, “You’re mine, pet.”
The vampire whispered, “Wouldn’t you like to live forever?”
“Wouldn’t you like to live forever?” whispered the vampire.
“Get your hands off her!” the guard shouted.
“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.