Grammar… Why Did it Have to be Grammar – Dialogue Tags

tools of the tradeIt’s been awhile since I’ve done a grammar article. This is a good article as it is a lesson I recently learned. This was a problem my own writing suffered and I was unaware of the mistake. Like many grammar issues, not everyone knows all the rules and often teaches give only half answers. Those who told me of this problem in the past could only tell me partial rules, so I generally ignored it.

I wanted this to be part of my comma series that I will have in the coming months, but this deals with much more than just commas and really does need to be its own article.

Help Keep This Site Running

This site is a great achievement for me, but due to being unable to work, I may not be able to keep this site running. With your help, I might be able to.

I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.

I searched hard to find some sort of history of this issue. I failed. I cannot find the origin of this rule or why it is so important. So, let’s get right into it. I have two sentences below, tell me which is the correct sentence:

He laughed, “Now the world is mine.”
“If you say so,” he stated, “But I really have to go.”

Study them carefully. Which one doesn’t appear correctly. They both look correct. Well, the answer is that they’re both wrong. However, up until a few weeks ago, this is how I wrote, and didn’t know I was doing anything wrong.

Basically, Dialogue Tags describe how something is said. Basically it is a word that modifies the dialogue. Seeing the word helps us to understand how something is being said. Why is it important to know a word that determines how something is said? Simply, punctuation and capitalization. Being able to determine if a dialogue is being modified tells us how to write the rest of the sentence.

Let’s take the first sentence and study it:

He laughed, “Now the world is mine.”

Someone can say something while laughing, but laughed doesn’t describe how he said his sentence. In order to indicate he said this while laughing, the sentence would need to indicate that specifically (said while laughing). The correct way to write this sentence is:

He laughed. “Now the world is mine.”

Since as we stated laugh doesn’t modify the dialogue, we know that these are two separate sentences. Thus a period (.) instead of a comma (,). The problem with laugh is that it seems like it should work, and it gets confusing. Below are some simple rules I developed to help you most of the time to figure it out.

1. Say, reply, ask.

The big 3. If you use these, then it most likely needs a comma.

“How are you?” he asked.
She replied, “I’m fine.”
“That’s good,” he said.

With the use of a comma, if the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, then the sentence after it is a part of the dialogue and we do not capitalize it. However, if dialogue appears after a tag, we capitalize the first word in the dialogue. The only exception to that rule is if the dialogue is written first with ellipsis (…) or an em dash (-).

2. If it describes the type of dialogue or how dialogue is said

“Where’s my coffee!” he shouted.
When are you fixing the AC?” she nagged.
“Good,” he acknowledged.

How often you use these kinds of tags over said, asked, replied, is up to you. But if you use them, this is how. All of these words describe how the dialogue is used.

3. Not 1 or 2, then requires a period.

He contemplated his decision. “I think we’re in business.”
“We could do that.” He chose his words carefully. “Still, it is risky.”

Neither of those shows how he is saying what he does, but rather shows what actions he does while saying it.

4. Breaking the Dialogue

In my example up above, I stated my second sentence was wrong. But why is it wrong? Let’s look at it again:

“If you say so,” he stated, “But I really have to go.”

‘Stated’ is a dialogue tag, and we used a comma. The problem with this is that it is being stated as once sentence, when in actuality, it is two. When you break up dialogue with a dialogue tag, you need to indicate which set of dialogue that sentence belongs to. Whether with the first part or second:

“If you say so,” he stated. “But I really have to go.”
“If you say so.” He stated, “But I really have to go.”

Technically these sentences are correct, but I’d probably go for the first one myself. Some more examples:

“This is my world,” he shouted. “You don’t belong here.”
“I can do as I please.” He then turned and whispered, “This guy is crazy.”


These are my basic rules for how to do this. I try to keep them as simple as possible. As with all my rules, this is not 100%, but should be most of the time, and make your editors job a little easier when working on your story.

Below I have provided you with a list I have on my wall. You’ll notice a * next to a few words. These are words that are commonly mistaken for dialogue tags. The * indicates that they are not dialogue tags, so be on the the lookout for these.

Dialogue Tag

One comment

  1. G.B. Miller says:

    Breaking the dialogue always gets me confused. Thanks for the tip.

%d bloggers like this: