Dialogue Tags

I’m an old 71-year-old new writer trying to fulfil a dream of writing a fiction novel, for no other reason than self satisfaction to see if I can do it.

I’ve been learning everything about the art and process from the ground up, as the only thing I’ve ever written in my life are emails and business memoranda.

I have 6 chapters of possibly 24 done, and I want to make sure I have my dialogue tags correct. I’ve read many sites and watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to use them, but there are some complex sentences that I’m not sure if I have the syntax correct. I know I have the simpler basic one’s right.

I’m trying to find a site or some place where I could validate how I’ve used the more challenging ones.

Does anyone know of such a site, or other resource that would be helpful?

Thanks for any feedback.


I’m afraid I don’t, but then I’m not sure what you mean by complicated dialogue tags.

Is it the placement of them mid-paragraph, or are you having trouble with too many non-“said” tags? Or are you using “dialogue tags” to mean something different from the “he/she/[proper name] said” variety?

Thanks for the reply.

Using your example.

He blushed. “It’s just a metaphorical ejaculation, not for real. But I can see how you might be confused if we were just text on a page, instead of real-life, flesh-and-blood human beings just talking.”

Why isn’t there a comma after blushed?

He blushed, “It’s just a metaphorical ejaculation, not for real. But I can see how you might be confused if we were just text on a page, instead of real-life, flesh-and-blood human beings just talking.”

Is it because that comma rule only applies using the word “said”?

You can only use the “comma rule” after any verb with the sense of “talk” in it, as what follows is grammatically the (perhaps extended!) predicate of that verb and therefore a structural part of the same sentence.

You cannot “blush” words or thoughts, so “He blushed” is a sentence on its own, terminated with a full stop.



Thanks Mark.

That was helpful. Now I understand.



You wouldn’t have a comma here after ‘blush’, because blushing doesn’t involve speaking – it’s a matter of meaning here, not punctuation. What you have is two distinct unconnected sentences (1: he blushed. 2: his quoted speech).

If you’d said ‘He shouted, “It’s just a metaphorical…”’ then you should use the comma.

In fact, that’s not strictly true…

Using a comma after the dialogue tag is the default, but you can equally use a colon or no comma at all, depending on the context and the effect you’re after.

E.g. With a very simple phrase (He said “Yes!”) a comma can look a little fussy and some writers omit it. That’s fine: it’s a matter of style.

With quotations which are long/complex (especially if they’re made up of more than one sentence) or if you want to emphasise it, you can use a semi-colon.

He screamed: “It’s just a metaphorical ejaculation, not for real. But I can see how you might be confused if we were just text on a page, instead of real-life, flesh-and-blood human beings just talking.”

Again, both the comma and the colon are correct here.

But… dialogue tags afterwards are a bit more complicated, because American English and British English treats them slightly differently. Putting it simply, Americans lob all the punctuation inside the quotation marks, whether it makes any sense or not, and irrespective of the punctuation of the original sentence. The British practice is to try to reflect the original punctuation as much as possible. I.e. if the original is a complete sentence OR it has a comma, we put the comma inside the quotation mark. If it’s not a full sentence and there’s no comma there, we put it outside the quotation mark.

Original: Go home, and never come back. (Original has a comma.)
American and British: 'Go home,’ he said, ‘and never come back.’ (…so even the British put the comma inside…)

Original sentence: Go home to your father. (I.e. no internal punctuation.)
American: 'Go home,’ he said, ‘to your father.’. (Never mind the sense, lob the comma inside…)
British: 'Go home’, he said, ‘to your father.’ (The original didn’t have one, so the comma goes outside…)

That’s the classic explanation anyway (it’s taken from the Oxford Guide to Style). No doubt we’ll move the American way in time — may already have done so…

I don’t know which version Canadians use, I’m sorry…

Well, look at that! I actually got that right?! :laughing:

In general, I don’t think I’m qualified to be giving advice on writing, but the reason I replied is that I couldn’t tell what you were having trouble with, or if you were even using the right name for the thing you meant to be talking about. Specificity is king in finding good answers to your questions, and this question probably is best answered by searching for “how to punctuate dialogue tags in fiction” and “what is or isn’t a dialogue tag?” or variations on that theme.

If your question had been about using anything other than name/pronoun + “said”, then that’s a matter of opinion and intended audience for the advice. “Never use anything but ‘said’” is advice given to new/amateur writers, primarily because they aren’t good judges of when to break that rule (sparingly). Beginners are wont to almost never use “said”, and it ends up hilariously distracting. It wasn’t clear if that was part of your learning curve, thus my ridiculous example.

Not to discourage you from asking. Please continue! I just learned why I was using a period there. Honestly, I could have just as easily used a comma instead, but now I have a solid foundation for remembering that I was right for once. :open_mouth:

Ahem! Colon, not semi-colon! Unless American usage is even more bizarre than this Brit thinks, a semi-colon would be totally inappropriate. :smiley:

I had a minor altercation with the editor of a column in an English language supplement published by China Daily that I wrote a few articles for. After the first article, which was totally mangled by a native American speaking “polisher”, I developed a Word template that mimicked the column layout in the paper right down to where lines wrapped and hyphenation occurred. They sent me a proof before it was published, but I still had to argue against totally unnecessary and illiterate changes their polishers were trying to make.

I won them all except for one thing … placement of full stops where the last word(s) in a sentence were in “scare quotes”. It came back to me with the full stop inside the scare quote, which I pointed out was totally illogical. Never mind, they said, our style-sheet says punctuation must always go inside a quote. It’s not a quote, said I, and you are referring to American usage and my text is very clearly in British English, so in this case you should follow British practice. So she went and asked all the “foreign experts” working for China Daily; 50% said it should go inside, 50% said it should go outside.

In the event, it was published with the full stop inside the scare quotes, so after that I made sure that if I needed to use scare quotes, the sentence was structured so that they were nowhere near any other punctuation!




Hah! Yes, you’re right of course! Sad thing is, I noticed the mistake when I proofread the post the first time and thought I’d corrected it… Typical! The curse of writing a post about grammar strikes again…

Your experience with your editor sounds fun… the thing about the American method is that it’s easy to remember, while you (at least in theory) are supposed to think about what you’re doing with the British version. People do get extraordinarily worked up about commas though… had an ‘interesting’ discussion with two people on another forum the other day who were convinced that the general rule of thumb about commas between independent clauses was a cast iron necessity handed down by a higher authority, rather than a way of making complex sentences more readable.

Promise, this is the last time I butt in where my “advice” is barely useful, but this…

got my little grey cells percolating… Have you looked into various style guides, maybe those recommended by some of the big-name publishers? I actually own a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, which Neil Gaiman once suggested to someone asking for advice on learning punctuation rules for writing dialogue.

I’ve also heard of, but never perused, the Chicago Manual of Style is also a well-know style guide (well known enough for me to have heard about it, anway). They even have an online version: chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

I bet there are websites where people discuss what style guides are best for people new to writing fiction/science-fiction/fantasy/romance/etc… If your stories are likely to fall into a particular genre, then maybe a google search for “style guides for writing _____ novels in America” would be a good start?

Back when I was a book editor, I’d enclose a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style with every signed contract. In 90 pages (and in those days, for $3.50), it contained every thing a working writer needs to know about the craft, presented in E.B. White’s crystalline prose without a trace of pedantry. Years later, there’s still not a better toolbox for a writer who wants to learn how to communicate with clarity and style.

Chicago, on the other hand, is a professional publisher’s toolbox. Every rule is presented, answered, dissected, in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. For a publisher or editor, Chicago is invaluable. For a writer, especially a new writer, it’s constipating.

I never knew a writer made better by Chicago, but I can think of dozens and dozens who went from unpublishable to professional courtesy Strunk & White.

Thank you to everyone who took time out of their lives to respond. :slight_smile:

This is certainly a talented group of folks I can learn from.

Much appreciated.


You are just starting out and I see you have been given already all the worthy advice you need to get on with, but I cannot resist to add my two cents.

Cent 1) Use all dialog tags sparingly.

You know this common advice: Use dialog tags other than ‘said’ sparingly. A worthy addendum is this: Use all dialogue tags sparingly. ‘Said’ tags are a device to use only when the reader would be in danger of losing track of who is speaking.

One way to see that you should be sparing is to note that half of your ‘said Molly’ is perfectly redundant, for your reader will already know someone said something — that is what the quote marks (or other marking convention) on the dialogue indicate. The only information the tag is offering is who it is that is speaking, but because of the dictates of grammar, this information comes at the cost of some redundancy. So, whenever you use a ‘said’ tag you are being half redundant.

This bit of advice is an instance of a general policy: guidance where guidance is needed and not otherwise.

Cent 2) Don’t interrupt the speaker without a good reason.

“There is nothing”, he said, “I could have done.”

My second suggestion is not to interrupt dialog with a dialog tag without a really good reason. The above example doesn’t have one. One might think some such interruptions make a pretty cadence, but disrupting a speaker mid-speech requires more justification than that (just as it would in real life).

Good luck with your project. In choosing Scrivener as your base of operations, you’ve given yourself a real leg up!


Have you seen Geoff Pullum’s critique of Strunk and White? It’s highly critical: points out that it’s simply wrong on some points of grammar, and elevates personal prejudice into rules in others. It’s an interesting read.


Are there any alternatives to Strunk & White that are more generally acceptable these days?

Pullem suggests this one: Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage https://smile.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B003XKN64G?pf_rd_p=330fbd82-d4fe-42e5-9c16-d4b886747c64&pf_rd_r=SZ98PJJ9CN0RX9NPE8NZ

I haven’t read it myself, but it looks interesting. This is Amazon’s blurb:


I’ve just downloaded it and had a quick scan… here’s the intro to the entry on Less/Fewer (the full article is a few pages long, giving examples and discussing the history of the controversy.)

I’ve seen it, but I prefer to rely on E.B. White’s advice rather than Geoff Pullem’s. But that’s just me. Well, no, it’s not just me. But then I started in publishing when a Post-It note was considered a high-tech upgrade over a paper clip on the margin.

I’m sure there are updates in English usage trends in the–can it be 60 years?–since the original pubbed, but I’m unaware of any updates to such useful (and frequently ignored advice) to omit needless words and avoid constructing awkward adverbs.

Strunk and White give us the rules in a concise and digestible form. We should all learn them, so that when we break them we do so as an act of studied intent rather than of ignorance.

Which you are of course free to do.

But suppose the book is inaccurate about some of the rules (and it is); suppose the authors frequently break their own ‘rules’ not just in their other writing, but also in the EofS itself (and they do)?

Doesn’t that mean that the book is better seen as something to read with interest when you already know the rules, and can judge when its advice is useful, rather than as an accurate guide to good grammar for a learner?

I’ve never seen this construction. Can you cite an a example? Not challenging you, but out of curiosity.

Personally, I’d recast it to avoid the issue: ‘Go home, to your father,’ he said,