Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grammar Daze - dialogue tags

Today's topic is dialogue tags! Dialogue tags are those little tags you put when using quotation marks. He said, she said, she exclaimed, he asked. Those are four dialogue tags.

"I want to go to the mall," she said. <-- she said is the dialogue tag.

"Are we done yet?" he asked. <-- he asked is the dialogue tag.

Here's the thing about dialogue tags: first, if they start with a pronoun, the pronoun is never, ever capitalized. Second, not everything can be a dialogue tag.

A dialogue tag is part of the sentence in quotation marks—even if that sentence ends with an exclamation point or a question mark. I think that's the thing I've seen throw people off the most. Here are some examples:

Correct: "Can we go to the mall?" she asked.

Incorrect: "Can we go to the mall?" She asked.

In this context, she asked is not a sentence by itself. It cannot be capitalized. You just have to imagine that the question mark is a comma when there are quotation marks right after it. Same goes for exclamation points.

Correct: "I'm so frustrated right now!" he said.

Incorrect: "I'm so frustrated right now!" He said.

When using dialogue tags, you use commas instead of periods:

Correct: "I have a dog," she said.

Incorrect: "I have a dog." She said.

Correct: "My dog likes to eat car tires," Billy said.

Incorrect: "My dog likes to eat car tires." Billy said.

There have been debates about what exactly you can use as a dialogue tag. People will use all sorts of things: said, responded, replied, answered, asked, questions, queried, exclaimed, babbled, chattered, told someone, sighed, yawned, snapped. Those are just a few. I had one editor give me a helpful piece of advice: if you can't do the action to speak the words, it's not a dialogue tag. For example, you could probably yawn and say, "Yes," at the same time, right? So you might be able to write:

"Yes," I yawned.

But some would argue that it would be a lot better if "I yawned" was its own sentence and not a dialogue tag:

"Yes." I yawned.

And if you had an insanely long sentence, you are very unlikely to be able to yawn the whole thing. If you're unsure about something, see if you can say it while doing the action and whether it should be a dialogue tag or not.

When you have something that is not a dialogue tag, you treat it as a separate sentence. You do not use commas instead of periods before the quotation marks and you do capitalize after question marks and exclamation points. Some examples:

Correct: "I know that!" Her voice was angry. <-- Her voice was angry is not a dialogue tag. It is a sentence by itself.

Incorrect: "I know that!" her voice was angry.

Correct: "I just want to get out of here." He sounded tired. <--Again, not a dialogue tag.

Incorrect: "I just want to get out of here," he sounded tired.
You could add words to both of those to make them dialogue tags and have them be correct.

"I know that!" she said, her voice angry.

"I just want to get out of here," he replied, and he sounded tired.

Happy writing!


  1. I've been reading a lot that you should only use 'said' in dialog tags. They mentioned that in my class last night. I kind of disagree. I think said mostly is fine most of the time. If you throw in one that's different and has meaning, it works for me.

  2. @Tonja

    I think the idea is to use "said" nearly all the time, and save the others for when you need them.

    (I also find that that rule applies better to past tense. In the present tense, other tags can still work even if you use them more often.)

    It's certainly not a hard and fast rule, in any case, but moderation is probably the key.

  3. I notice a lot of writers will attach the dialogue tag to action.

    For example:

    "I want to kill them," Bob said and crumpled a paper in his hand.

    Whereas this is much cleaner and you still know Bob is speaking.

    "I want to kill them." Bob crumpled the paper in his hand.

  4. I was thrilled to death when someone explained the difference between dialogue tags and dialogue beats.

    "And if you had an insanely long sentence, you are very unlikely to be able to yawn the whole thing." lol

  5. Nicely written! I definitely have to pay attention to how I handle my tags, because with five main characters, things can be rather confusing without them. :-D


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!