Dialogue Tags

Loads of great advice here. I’m pretty closely aligned with @brookter.

I’ll add a couple of things to the mix:

Read your dialogue aloud. Doing so makes it clear what is and isn’t needed. If you’re new to this, then perhaps have someone else read it to you. As a writer, you have to develop writing and reading personas who are prepared to argue with one another. It takes a while.

Don’t worry about dialogue “tags” when writing a first draft. The following is adequate:

A: There’s someone at the door.
B: Who is it?
A: Maybe we should open it and find out.
Suddenly, the door burst open.
B: It’s a man with a gun!

For A and B, use character initials.

I’m also not a fan of Strunk and White. I prefer to live by Garner’s, which is huge (as it must be), UK/US bilingual, not very expensive, and a thing of beauty. There are no rules, of course; but when I need to be consistent, Garner’s is a worthy bible.

Of the rest, I enjoyed the recent Dreyer’s English. It pads itself with a part deux entitled, The Stuff in (sic) the Back; but, if you ignore that, it dispenses copious amounts of sound and practical guidance.

That example I gave is actually from the Oxford Guide to Style itself.

[The sentence above is factually true - I did take it directly from the OGS. But if we were putting it into dialogue, in British English we would look at the fact that the sentence legitimately doesn’t have any internal quotation, and then reflect that lack by not having any ‘new’ punctuation inside the quote.]

The point is, you wouldn’t recast it as “‘Go home, to your father,’ he said.” because the original doesn’t have a comma after home. That’s why the American usage is ‘illogical’ from our point of view, because that comma isn’t in the original. The comma after father goes inside the quotation mark in both US and GB styles, though, because it represents the full stop at the end of the original sentence.

The split quotation construction isn’t the most common, and you can usually recast it, but I wouldn’t say it was particularly rare either. It can lend itself to comedy, for example. PG Wodehouse (and there is no finer stylish in English that PG…) does it a lot.

“But,” I said, “but, but, but Jeeves!”

This page gives a few examples. https://fandom-grammar.livejournal.com/31908.html (I think the site author is American because they use the ‘internal comma style, but that’s a separate issue.

I see… sorry if I misunderstood! I wouldn’t have said it was particularly rare. Also, if you’re reading mainly American printed/edited material, they would follow US style, no matter what the original says.

The rule itself extends beyond this one case, though: the OGS discusses where to put the final punctuation mark (not just commas) in a variety of ever more complicated circumstances. by that point it’s probably only of academic importance (in both senses!)


Is this line correctly formatted?

“Excuse me, am I interrupting something?”, said a woman’s voice from the doorway.

I wasn’t sure about the comma after the ?"



You don’t need the comma–‘stronger’ punctuation marks override weaker ones and you don’t double up on them.

But, just to be clear, even if this quotation was an ordinary statement, not a question, you wouldn’t put the comma outside the quotation even in British English. That’s because it’s a complete sentence, so the punctuation goes inside.


“Excuse me, I hope I’m not interrupting,” said a woman’s voice from the doorway.

(The comma replaces the full stop at the end of what was actually said.)

And of course, a question mark usually goes at the end of a sentence, and the same principle applies: the punctuation goes inside the quotation mark. However, meaning would be lost (the fact it was a question) if it was replaced by a comma, so the quotation mark is retained. The same would apply to an exclamation mark.

“Excuse me, am I interrupting something?” said a woman’s voice from the doorway.

“Excuse me, I think you’re right!” said a woman’s voice from the doorway.


Thank you Sir.

Explained very well. :slight_smile:


A follow up…

How about this one? Which is correct?

“I’m on my way now,” said Lizzie, but make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.

“I’m on my way now.” said Lizzie, but make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.

I think it should be a comma and not a period after the word now?



Presumably, what Lizzie actually said was:

I’m on my way now, but make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.

In this case both American English and British English style would be:

“I’m on my way now,” Lizzie said, “but make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.”

This is because Americans do it that way anyway (the comma is always inside the quotation mark, even it there wasn’t one in the original) and we Brits would say that as there is a comma in the original, it should be reproduced. The logic is different, but in this case, the effect is the same.

You never have a full stop when dialogue is followed by a tag in the same sentence – it’s usually a comma, but it can be a question mark or exclamation mark.


“This is the house.” Sarah’s voice was emphatic. <- a full stop is fine because this is two sentences.

“This is the house,” said Sarah emphatically. <- it’s a comma because it’s all part of one sentence.


Awesome … thank you … :slight_smile:


I’m in no way contradicting @brookter; but I have a different view. Note the semicolon between my clauses :slight_smile:

I’d edit this as:

“I’m on my way now,” Lizzie said. “But make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.”

The two clauses in:

“I’m on my way now, but make sure the door is locked and have your Beretta in hand ready to go.”

can easily be separated, and because semicolons in dialogue are generally not a good look – I use them endlessly elsewhere – I prefer to separate them, as above.

That said, personally, I’d remove the “but”. Hence:

“I’m on my way now,” Lizzie said. “Make sure the door’s locked. And have your Beretta ready to go.”

There’s immediacy in short sentences, which is what this sentence seems to require. (I removed the “in hand” mainly because it wrecks the rhythm (which I regard as important) – say both options aloud to hear the difference.)

ymmv, etc.

Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt the sentence can be rewritten, and of course you’re right that if you split it into two sentences, you punctuate it the way you suggest.

But that’s a more a stylistic matter (which way do I split the quotation?) than a grammatical one (how do I punctuate it when I’ve chosen to split it this way?), which I gathered was the point of the question.

It’s all good stuff, though. Thanks!

I might see this slightly differently.

I think there are two cardinal rules in writing:

  1. try not to confuse the reader

  2. try not to write more words than are needed

It seems every single writing ‘rule’ goes right back there, as an extension of those rules.

Dialogue tags can be considered something that evokes a struggle between those rules. In a way, they can be somewhat mutually exclusive, or in tension against each other.

If you don’t lead the reader to understand who is speaking, you’ve likely violated rule #1. But sometimes, such as when two characters think the same and believe the same and have a similar agenda, and one of them speaks to a third character in dialogue, it actually is not even important which of those two said the line. The reader can imagine it is either of the two, and the story goes on in essentially the same manner, regardless who the line belongs to. No blood, no foul.

If you put a dialogue tag where it is already obvious who is speaking, you’ve violated rule #2, pretty severely, IMHO. This happens constantly in amateur writing or writing where care is not taken, and that even includes a lot of published writing, some of which is reviewed well.

I think the trick is to write so there are enough clues for the reader to figure it out on their own, and only if there is no way to do that, then use a simple ‘said’ tag.

That’s hard work, but fun work, and there are a lot of effective ways to accomplish this without resorting to dialogue tags. If you do it properly, you may only need a handful of them in a 100,000-word novel. And that will read like a bat out of hell.