Today we’re talking about dialogue tags! I already rambled about them in a previous post, but I’m going to ramble some more about them now, so prepare yourself.
What is a dialogue tag?
It’s the short phrase you stick after a line of dialogue — i.e., “he said”, “she said”, etc.
Simple dialogue tag
Observe the following sentence:
“I love your socks,” he said.
That’s a simple dialogue tag — sentence of dialogue, followed by a dialogue tag. Here are some more:
“Your face is on fire!” she said.
“Are you sure?” he said.
- You have to use a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence of dialogue that’s not a period — i.e., comma (most common), question mark (for questions), exclamation mark (for excitement!) — Using a period is effectively ending the sentence, so if you put a period after “I love your socks”, you’re ending the sentence, and then the “he said” is just randomly floating there with no attachment to anything
- The “he said” or “she said” needs to be decapitalized. If you write something like this — “I love your socks,” He said. — you’re indicating by capitalizing the “he” that either A) God is talking, or B) you’re starting a new sentence and don’t know how to punctuate your sentence of dialogue properly.
Dialogue tag before dialogue
Staring at her beautiful face, he said, “I’d like to lick your nose.”
So here we’re reversing the order of dialogue and dialogue tag. Note:
- You need to end the dialogue tag (and thus lead into the dialogue) with a comma or a colon — not a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. Using one of those would indicate the sentence is ending after the word “said”, which means you have a sentence reading: “Staring at her beautiful face, he said.”, which makes no sense at all
Dialogue tag in between two pieces of dialogue
“How are you doing?” he asked. “Isn’t the weather grand?”
“I wish I could agree with you,” she said, “but I have a ferret up my nose.”
Here we have two variations of “dialogue tag between two pieces of dialogue”. In the first example, we’ve got dialogue with a complete sentence (How are you doing?), and then a second complete sentence of dialogue (Isn’t the weather grand?). Since these are both complete sentences, we put a period after “he asked”. In the second example, the second bit of dialogue is continuing the first bit of dialogue, thus we stick a comma after “she said” to indicate the sentence is still on-going.
Using a descriptive sentence instead of a dialogue tag
Tracy cleared her throat. “Excuse me, can I please have one albatross-egg omelette, shaken not stirred?”
So here we know that Tracy is speaking, since the first sentence implies fairly heavily that she’s the one talking. It’s not a dialogue tag, because it’s not describing how she’s talking — you can “say”, or “exclaim”, or even “screech” out a sentence, but you certainly can’t “clear your throat” a sentence.
You can also stick the descriptive sentence after the dialogue:
“Where are you going?” Mary pouted at Roger, hoping he would come back and stay with her forever.
Again, “Mary pouted” isn’t a dialogue tag, because you can’t “pout” a sentence. It’s a sentence unrelated to the dialogue, although it still indicates she’s the one talking.
Third example, putting a descriptive sentence between two dialogues:
“My name is Jim.” I’m lying through my teeth, but she doesn’t need to know that. “What’s your name?”
- First rule here is that you can’t punctuate dialogue tags and descriptive sentences the same way. If it’s a dialogue tag, it’s attached to the dialogue. If it’s a descriptive sentence, it’s a different sentence entirely from the dialogue. This means you can’t do something like this:
“Hey Bob,” I shake his hand, “what’s cooking?”
- This is wrong on so many levels. Can you spot them? A) “I shake his hand” isn’t a dialogue tag, so “Hey Bob” should be ending in a period/exclamation mark to indicate the sentence is over ; B) “I shake his hand” needs to end in a period, since it’s a sentence, and sentences don’t end in commas! ; and C) “what’s cooking?” should have “what” capitalized, since it’s the start of a sentence
In conclusion …
Dialogue can be really confusing to punctuate!
Semi-related media of the day:
In this case, the “problem” referred to in the song is “punctuation rules for dialogue and dialogue tags”.
Speech tags are sometimes termed ‘apositive clause’ in the more arcane of grammar manuals.
Which is not to be confused with ‘a positive clause’, which is a section of a sentence used to accurately describe me.