Editing style meets … dialogue, part 1

quotation marksDoes your dialogue make you look like an experienced writer? Or do some bad habits distract your readers? One aspect of language that copyeditors look at very closely are dialogue tags (like he said, she said). Sometimes writers are confused about what punctuation mark should come between the dialogue and its tag. At other times, writers might struggle with the difference between action and speech or between direct and indirect speech. As I copyedit, here are the questions I ask myself to make sure the dialogue seems professional and effective:

Does the tag appear after or before a complete sentence — or inside a sentence?

  • Before: Fred said, “I forgot to feed the iguana. It must be starving.” (When the tag comes before a complete main clause, it is followed by a comma.)
  • After: “I forgot to feed the iguana,” Fred said. “It must be starving.” (When the tag comes after a complete main clause, it’s introduced with a comma and is followed by a period. Note that “It must be starving” is a separate complete sentence — so even though it’s dialogue, it would not be connected to the preceding tag with a comma.)
  • Inside: “I forgot,” Fred said, “to feed the iguana. It must be starving.” (When the tag appears inside a main clause, a comma appears both before and after the tag.)

Does the tag identify the speaker of a question or an exclamation?

  • Question: “Do you want the poor thing to starve?” Mary asked. “It can’t survive if you keep forgetting to feed it.” (When the line of dialogue ends in a question mark, the comma is dropped before the dialogue tag.)
  • Exclamation: “You’re so dramatic!” Fred said. (When the line of dialogue ends in an exclamation point, the comma is dropped before the dialogue tag.)
  • Question or exclamation at the end of the sentence: Note that if the tag comes before a question or exclamation, you do not insert a period after the dialogue:

She asked, “Did you feed the iguana?”
He said, “No!”

Note that a question mark or exclamation point follows the spoken words, not the tag itself. “Are you sure,” she asked? would be an error.

Does a line of dialogue trail off — or is it interrupted?

  • Trailing: Fred looked at Mary. “So you want me to …” (When a character allows a sentence to trail off, incomplete, the dialogue should end in ellipsis points.)
  • Interrupted: Fred looked at Mary. “So you want me to — ”
    “Why do you need me to remind you to take care of your pet?” Mary said. (When another character interrupts a speaker, an em dash indicates the speech that’s been broken off by the interruption.)

Does the verb in the tag indicate a genuine kind of speech? Or does the verb describe an action that has nothing to do with audible speech?

Body language often reveals character or emotion, but in dialogue, body language doesn’t count as actual speech. Only speech verbs work as dialogue tags.

  • “You forgot to feed the iguana,” Mary shouted. “The poor thing!” (Shouted indicates a kind of speech. So we treat shouted just as we would treat “said,” inserting a comma before the dialogue tag.)
  • “You forgot to feed the iguana.” Mary rolled her eyes. “The poor thing!” (Rolling eyes isn’t a kind of audible speech. So the quoted sentence ends in a period, and “Mary rolled her eyes” is treated as a second independent sentence.)
  • “I’m only human.” Fred pouted. (Again, pouting doesn’t produce speech noises. So “Fred pouted” can’t act as a dialogue tag, and both sentences end in a period.)
  • “I’m only human,” Fred whispered. (Whispering is a kind of speech, so we can treat whisper as we would said, inserting a comma before the dialogue tag. Whether the dialogue tag should be this dramatic is another question, one we’ll consider next week.)
  • “I’m only human.” Fred clapped his hands together. “Alert the media!” (Clapping produces a sound, but it’s not speech. So “Fred clapped his hands together” is treated as a second independent sentence.)

Sometimes a writer wants to embed an action within a line of dialogue. The sentence describing the action is best set off by em dashes:

  • “I can’t believe” — Mary rolled her eyes — “that you want to buy another iguana!”

Just like dialogue tags, these gesture sentences (Mary rolled her eyes) can be useful in identifying who is speaking — and also valuable in creating a scene and developing a character. But if the verb doesn’t indicate an actual kind of speech, the gesture must appear as a separate sentence, not as the dialogue tag.

Does the tag combine speech and action?

When speech and action are combined, we should treat the dialogue tag as a complete sentence and punctuate it the way we would any other complete sentence.

  • Tag followed by a participle: “I forgot,” he said, closing his book. (Present participles that modify the subject are set off with a comma. Compare the tag sentence to any other sentence with a participle: He walked, slowing down as he got closer to her house.)
  • Tag followed by a finite verb: “I forgot,” he said and closed his book. (Subjects followed by two verbs — that is, a compound verb phrase — don’t normally take commas between the verbs. Compare the tag sentence to any other sentence with a compound verb: He strolled and enjoyed the scenery.)
  • Tag followed by a sentence: “I forgot,” he said, and he closed the book he’d been reading. (A tag is a sentence, that is, a main clause with a subject and verb. When it’s joined to another main clause, it’s punctuated like a compound sentence. Unless both clauses are very short [like he said and he sighed], compound sentences are generally joined with both a comma and a conjunction: He closed his book, and he wondered if she would ever forgive him.)

Is what’s being said direct or indirect speech — or a one-word statement?

  • Direct speech: “Are you sure?” he asked. (The words actually spoken are set in quotation marks.)
  • Indirect speech: He said that he wasn’t convinced. She said she knew what needed to be done. (Summarized or paraphrased speech is often preceded by that — or that is implied, as in the second sentence of this example: She said [that] she knew what needed to be done. Such indirect speech is not enclosed in quotation marks.)
  • One-word answers or questions: He asked her why. She said no. Her parents said yes. (One-word answers are not set in quotation marks.)

What do I copyedit if the dialogue is already well written?

Most of the fiction that I copyedit is already sophisticated in terms of its tags (usually limited to said and asked) and its use of “body language” descriptions. So what do I need to pay attention to as I edit?

Occasional typos: Even in the work of accomplished writers, sometimes a comma will appear where a period is needed or vice versa. Sometimes the punctuation has been accidentally dropped. I correct those typos.

Missing quotation marks; Sometimes in revising the text, a writer will accidentally delete a set of quotation marks, especially the marks at the end of the dialogue. If it’s clear where the dialogue has ended, I’ll insert the mark. If it’s unclear, I’ll query the author.

Confusion between trailing off dialogue and interrupted dialogue: Writers occasionally are uncertain about how to punctuate sentences that trail off or that are interrupted. I’ll change ellipses to dashes, or vice versa, as needed. If I’m not sure what the author is trying to suggest in the dialogue (trailing or interrupting), I’ll query the author first.

Repetition of phrases: Sometimes a writer has described terrific gestures not only to identify speakers but to indicate the characters’ emotions and tone — but perhaps those gestures are structured too similarly. If so, I query the author. Look at this conversation:

“Did you feed the iguana?” Mary said, standing in the doorway with her arms crossed.
“I forgot,” Fred said, sighing and bowing his head
“I’m only human,” Fred said, slamming his book shut.
“Tell that to the iguana when lying it’s in its cage with its feet in the air,” Mary said, scowling.
Looking at her over his reading glasses, Fred said, “That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”

In this case, I would write a comment to the author: “I notice that nearly all of these dialogue tags use present participles: standing, sighing, slamming, looking, etc. Would you like to vary the syntax more?” Depending on what the writer wants from me (a light copyediting, for example, or more substantive line editing), I might recast some of the participles as clauses or as other kinds of phrases and then write a comment like “OK to vary sentence structure to avoid repetition?”

Does the author seem afraid to repeat “said” as a dialogue tag?

Next week, I’ll discuss the false problem of “repetition” in dialogue tags. Said and ask are generally considered the standard tags, and there are good reasons for not varying the tag verbs very much. Strictly speaking, this is a matter of effective writing style, not copyediting, but the discussion may help you write the most compelling dialogue you can.

Have I missed anything? Do you have any questions about formatting or punctuating dialogue?

Recommended Reading

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), sections 13.37–13.43.

Beth Hill, “Punctuation in Dialogue,” The Editor’s Blog, December 12, 2012, http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue.


Text and graphic, © 2014, Martha Carlson-Bradley

2 thoughts on “Editing style meets … dialogue, part 1

  1. Thanks, Martha. Helpful stuff. Reminds me of editing my first book a couple years ago. The editor told me that it was standard usage nowadays to not use a comma separating two halves of the same spoken sentence (with a tag in between). As in your example:

    “I forgot,” Fred said, “to feed the iguana. It must be starving.”

    She made me change all of them to “I forgot to feed the iguana,” Fred said. “It must be starving.”

    I wasn’t sure one way or the other, so went ahead and made the changes. But now that I’m on the next book, I’m going back to the way you have it. Seems like a useful way to set dialog, when done correctly.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Rob! I tend not to make hard and fast rules about where the tags appear, unless something awkward happens as a result. In “I forgot,” Fred said, “to feed the iguana,” for instance, the break puts emphasis on “forgot.” If tension is building in the story because Fred isn’t paying attention to stuff he should, maybe that’s a useful emphasis. But if many tag lines appear within sentences, I’d be more likely to suggest revisions, because surely not all words deserve that much emphasis, and the prose might be more choppy than it should be. Copyeditors are in a position to look at prose very closely, and sometimes we notice little tics and repetitions in structure that maybe aren’t serving the author. Otherwise, I don’t see a problem in tags appearing within sentences, as long as the overall effect works for the story.


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