Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ask the Editor: Dialogue Tags

Melissa D sent me the following: I'm confused about how to use punctuation with dialogue. When should I use a comma and when should I end with a period? What's the difference between single quotes and double quotes? And if the character is asking a question, does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks?

Another great question, and a source of much frustration for me when I see it done wrong in published work! Thanks, Melissa.

In the U.S., we always use double quotation marks for dialogue. Single quotation marks are only used inside double quotation marks.

“I want to watch ‘Dancing With the Stars,’” Robbie shouted.
Punctuation goes inside the quotes.
“Too bad, Robbie,” Nicole replied. “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ is on tonight.”

Clear as mud? Okay, let’s try another.

The witness hesitated.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” the attorney told her. “Simply repeat what the defendant said to you for the court record.”
After a long moment, the witness sighed and leaned forward to speak directly into the microphone. “He said, ‘I’ll kill you first!’” she whispered in a tone roughened with raw emotion.
“And how did you respond?”
“I asked him why.” Her voice, though softer than a child’s coo, carried volumes across the silent courtroom. “‘Why are you doing this to me?’ I’d never given him a reason to distrust me.”

If the the dialogue is a question, the question mark goes inside the quotes: "Why are you doing this to me?" or "Why are you doing this to me?" she asked.

Notice, too, that my dialogue tags are not capitalized—except in the last exchange. Why? Because the last exchange is not a dialogue tag. “Her voice…carried…” is an action. “He said,” “she cried,” “he exclaimed,” “she whispered,” “he asked,” etc. are all dialogue tags. “He rose from the table.” is an action. “She glanced up.” Action. “Mom hung up the phone.” Action. If “Mom exclaimed, and then hung up the phone,” it’s a dialogue tag. Dialogue tags complete the dialogue and are included as part of the dialogue. Even dialogue that ends with a question mark or exclamation point is part of the dialogue. Actions are separate thoughts and require a new sentence. If you took away the dialogue and the rest of the passage is still a complete sentence, requiring no further clarification, it's not a dialogue tag.

“Where are you going?” he asked.
“What do you care?” She slammed the door so hard the walls shook.
“What a witch!” he said to no one in particular.
“Jerk!” With one last scathing look at the house, Carrie stalked to the waiting cab.

Let's try to separate those four.
#1. He asked. (He asked what? Incomplete thought=dialogue tag.)
#2. She slammed the door so hard the walls shook. (Complete sentence.)
#3. He said to no one in particular. (He said what? Incomplete thought=dialogue tag.)
#4. With one last scathing look at the house, Carrie stalked to the waiting cab. (Complete sentence.)

Hope this helps! If not, feel free to email me at ginaardito@gmail.com for additional clarification!

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