Oh, Dialogue Tags, Dialogue Tags, how we love to punctuate thee!
- Said NO ONE, EVER
Really, though, I know these things can be complicated. Commas and quotes and when to capitalize and it’s all so MESSY! But I’m gonna do my best to clear this up for y’all - ready? Let's go!
What is a Dialogue Tag – used in the same manner as a social medial photo tag, this attributes/assigns the speaker to the dialogue.
“I’m speaking for an example,” she said.
The “she” is the identifying pronoun of who spoke, and thus, the dialogue tag. Easy as that!
How to Punctuate!
Step 1: Cry.
No, don't cry! We can do this!
Point Blank: Dialogue tags get punctuated with the dialogue as part of a whole sentence together.
1. The dialogue isn’t punctuated to a close with a period
2. The dialogue tag is still ruled by normal mid-sentence capitalization rules, and
3. We need a finalizing punctuation mark at the end of the dialogue tag, unless we’re continuing the dialogue.
I promise that's not nearly as bad as it sounds.
“I’m speaking for an example,” she said.
1. Notice the comma. The dialogue isn’t punctuated to a close with a period. It is continuing with a comma. The sentence isn’t done.
2. The dialogue tag of “she said” is lower case, because it is in the middle of a continuing sentence.
The tag is still ruled by normal mid-sentence capitalization rules. Had this been a proper noun like Jennifer or Joe, we would capitalize their names, but otherwise, we don’t capitalize random words in the middle of sentences, right? RIGHT?
3. We have a period at the end of the tag. The sentence has been ongoing with a comma, but now we need to stop it to start a new one. We use a period. (I’m really failing to ever think of a time when I’ve seen a dialogue tag closed with anything else, but I’m sure someone will have an example of one)
“But what about dialogue with a question mark?” he asked.
“Or ones with an exclamation mark!” Joe yelled.
What about them? The question mark and exclamation point can absolutely double as sentence stopping punctuation marks. But the dialogue tag means our sentence is continuing, so the above mentioned rules apply.
“I’m speaking for an example,” she said. [RIGHT]
“I’m speaking for an example.” she said. [WRONG]
“I’m speaking for an example.” She said. [WRONG]
She said, “Look, I’m only speaking for an example.”
1. The dialogue tag of “She said” is capitalized because it’s at the start of the sentence
2. It transitions into the dialogue with a comma, continuing the sentence
3. The start of the dialogue is capitalized
She said, “Look, I’m speaking for an example.” [RIGHT]
She said. “Look, I’m speaking for an example.” [WRONG]
She said, “look, I’m speaking for an example.” [WRONG]
Yep, it's that simple.
“I’m speaking for an example,” she said, “and I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
1. Here we have the dialogue tag in the middle of the dialogue.
2. We’re still continuing the sentence with a comma after the dialogue tag, so the “and” is lower case, because we’re still in an ongoing sentence.
Like an aside, we hold to normal capitalization rules for the dialogue tag surrounded by commas. (psst just act like it’s not there)
“I’m speaking for an example,” she said. “And I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
3. Here, we have a period after the dialogue tag, so the “And” is capitalized. Because it is starting a new sentence.
4. Both of these interrupters are fine. It has more to do with making sure your dialogue makes sense with how it’s punctuated, acting just like the tag wasn’t there.
“I like on my sandwich,” Joe said, “ham, cheese, and mustard.”
- “I like on my sandwich: ham, cheese, and mustard.”
“I like on my sandwich,” Joe said. “Ham, cheese, and mustard.”
- “I like on my sandwich. Ham, cheese, and mustard.”
See how it doesn’t make sense to split the sentence up that way with a period? Same rules apply for middle-man tags.
Interrupting Dialogue Tags
“I’m speaking for an example”—she pointed at me—“and I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
1. Here the dialogue is interrupted with an action. The action is an aside, with the em-dashes outside the quotations. Notice: there is NO COMMA anywhere here.
2. The choice of whether to use em-dashes this way is really a style preference. Could easily be written either as:
a. “I’m speaking for an example.” She pointed at me. “And I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
b. “I’m speaking for an example”—she pointed at me—“and I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
3. Just make sure whichever way you do it, it’s the right way
“I’m speaking for an example . . .” She sighed. “And I expect a cake for lunch for this.”
4. Here the dialogue is interrupted by the character trailing off, which is indicated with an ellipses.
(Three dots - not four, not two. Three.)
The action beat is capitalized as a new sentence, and the same for the continuing dialogue.
Okay, we got it?
- Dialogue Tags tell you who is speaking.
- They can come before or after the dialogue
- Sometimes they pop up in the middle!
- They are joined with the dialogue via comma
- Normal sentence capitalization rules apply!