Punctuating dialogue can be tricky. The rules aren’t consistent for each type of sentence, so that adds to the confusion. Use this guide to help you learn the basics of punctuating your dialogue.
Dialogue tags are used to help clue in the reader on who is speaking and keeping readers oriented throughout the conversation, particularly if there are more than two characters involved. They are most commonly “he said” or “he asked.” They can be in front of, in the middle of, or behind dialogue:
- James said, “Be careful. You might hurt yourself.”
- “Be careful,” James said. “You might hurt yourself.”
- “Be careful. You might hurt yourself,” James said.
Note the punctuation here. In the first example, the dialogue tag is first, followed by a comma, then the opening quotation marks. The sentence ends with a period and ending quotation marks. The dialogue is always surrounded by quotation marks, so that part is pretty easy. When a dialogue tag is introducing the text (i.e., it comes before the dialogue), it’s followed by a comma. Since there’s nothing after the dialogue in this case, it ends with a period, just like any other sentence. The period is inside the quotation marks for two reasons: First, it’s part of the sentence that is the dialogue. In other words, “You might hurt yourself” stands alone as a sentence regardless of anything around it. Second, in American English, periods are always inside of the quotation marks when ending a sentence.
Let’s skip the second example for a moment and move on to the third one. In this one, the dialogue tag comes at the end of the sentence. Notice that instead of there being a period at the end of the dialogue, there’s a comma. This is to indicate that there’s a dialogue tag coming. The sentence doesn’t actually end until after the dialogue tag. Commas introducing dialogue only replace periods. We’ll cover questions later. Again, only the spoken part is within the quotation marks, and this time, the period is at the end of the dialogue tag since that’s the end of the sentence.
Back to the second example. It’s very much the same as the third example at the beginning. “Be careful” is in quotation marks, since it was spoken. There’s a comma at the end to show that there’s a dialogue tag coming, then a period at the end of the dialogue tag to show the sentence ended. The rest of the dialogue doesn’t need a tag since it’s already clear who is doing the speaking, so it’s enclosed in quotation marks, including the period at the end of the sentence.
You can also have a dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence:
- “Be careful,” James said, “or you might hurt yourself.”
Here, the dialogue is “Be careful, or you might hurt yourself.” There’s only a period at the end, not one after “Be careful.” Therefore, the dialogue tag both follows dialogue and introduces dialogue. Thus, commas on both sides of the dialogue tag.
Dialogue questions are a little different. It depends whether the question is part of the dialogue or part of the surrounding sentence. Consider:
- “Do you think he’s dead?” she asked.
- Did she just say, “I hope he’s dead”?
In the first one, the question is part of the dialogue. As usual, the quotation marks surround the dialogue. In this case, since the dialogue is a question, the question mark is included within the quotation marks. The dialogue tag follows, starting with a lower case letter (unless it’s a proper noun, such as a name, which is always capitalized) because the dialogue tag is still part of the sentence. Then the sentence ends with a period because the overall sentence, outside of the dialogue, is a statement, not a question.
In the second example, the overall sentence is a question, but the dialogue is a statement. The quoted part is enclosed in quotation marks, but the question mark is outside of the quotation marks since it belongs to the entire sentence. There’s no comma or period inside the quotation marks at the end of the statement so as to avoid double punctuation, which is always unnecessary.
Here’s an additional example:
- She asked, “Do you think he’s dead?”
There are quotation marks around the dialogue, and the question mark is part of the dialogue, so it’s included within the quotation marks. There’s a dialogue tag introducing the dialogue, and it is followed by a comma, just as we covered in the statements section above. But the overall sentence, with the dialogue tag, is a statement. Should it have a period at the end? No. We don’t want double punctuation. The question mark wins here (and always) because it’s needed for clarity. It also does a fine job on its own signifying the end of the sentence. We don’t need a period too.
Consider another example:
- Jessica turned to me and asked, “Did she just say, ‘I hope he’s dead’?”
Here we have dialogue within dialogue. You may remember from your grammar classes in school that the first set of dialogue gets double quotation marks while the second set gets single quotation marks. You can see that in action here. Additionally, we have a dialogue tag at the beginning, so it’s followed by a comma before the dialogue starts. Then the overarching question belongs to Jessica, not to the “I hope she’s dead” statement, so similar to the second example above, the question mark is not within the single quotation marks, but it is within the double quotation marks since it belongs to that sentence. The overall sentence, including the dialogue tag at the beginning is a statement. However, as we just discussed, the question mark stands to mark the end of the sentence even though the overall sentence is a statement; we don’t need a period too.
Exclamation points behave exactly like question marks—if the exclamation point is part of the dialogue, it should be inside of the quotation marks, but if it’s part of the overarching sentence, it should be outside of them.
Dialogue Tags Versus Actions
One area where authors commonly make mistakes is using an action as a dialogue tag. “Samantha smiled” is an action; you can’t smile words. Similarly, “Bobby sighed” is an action. Be careful to only use dialogue tags if they describe that a person is speaking or how they’re speaking.
Actions are also punctuated differently than dialogue tags. Whereas dialogue tags have commas to show that they’re attached to the dialogue, actions stand on their own. For example:
- He hopped down from the tree. “Be careful. It gets rough near the bottom.”
- “Be careful.” He hopped down from the tree. “It gets rough near the bottom.”
- “Be careful. It gets rough near the bottom.” He hopped down from the tree.
You can also combine an action with a dialogue tag, then it does have a comma closest to the dialogue tag:
- He hopped down from the tree and said, “Be careful. It gets rough near the bottom.”
- “Be careful.” He hopped down from the tree and said, “It gets rough near the bottom.”
- “Be careful,” he said as he hopped down from the tree. “It gets rough near the bottom.”
- “Be careful. It gets rough near the bottom,” he said as he hopped down from the tree.
A Word on Dialogue Tags
Generally, it’s best to keep your dialogue tags simple—”he said” or “he asked.” These are practically invisible to readers, which is good. They help orient readers on who is speaking, but they don’t draw attention to themselves.
On the other hand, if you use stronger verbs like “he exclaimed” or adverbs like “he said wanly,” consider whether you can get that across in the dialogue or actions you’re showing the reader rather than telling them. Telling instead of showing is a sign of weak writing, so if you notice it in your writing, take care to boost your dialogue or add some action beats to show how the character is acting or reacting.
I hope you’ve found this blog and the examples helpful. Need some help figuring out dialogue punctuation for your manuscript? Contact me about your project!