Grammar Gremlins: Dealing With Dialogue

The rules for punctuating dialogue are fairly simple. The most common typo I see is the gremlin-2absent closing quotation mark, which can be wildly confusing in a paragraph that contains more than conversation.


Speech tags (said being the simplest and most nearly invisible) are part of the sentence.

Mary said, “Let’s go to the store.”

“Let’s go to the store,” Mary said, “and then we’ll have lunch.”


Things get a little more complicated with action tags, which need to be treated as separate sentences.

“Let’s go to the store.” Mary picked up her car keys. “And then we’ll go to the post office.”

NOT “Let’s go,” Mary picked up her keys, “we’re running late.”


Be careful with speech tags. When said isn’t enough, we have an array of others to choose from (just google “speech tags” some time!): asked, whispered, shouted, and so on. But don’t get too carried away. Words like interrogated, erupted, ejaculated (yes, folks, I’ve seen that used as a speech tag, and not with a sense of humor), ruminated (isn’t that something cows do?) and even exclaimed will likely stop a reader in her tracks, something we never want to do. Keep your speech tags simple and unobtrusive; avoid fancy and formal. Don’t get carried away with adverbs, either. Let the dialogue show the character’s emotions.


One group of words to avoid in this context consists of action tags misused as speech tags. Smirk and grimace, for example, are facial expressions. Your characters can’t smirk or grimace words. They can’t laugh, giggle, or chuckle words, either, although any of these are perfectly good as action tags.

“I’ve got something on your brother.” Gregor smirked. “Just try me.”

“I’ve got something for your brother.” Gregor chuckled. “He’ll love it.”

“I’ve got something for your brother.” Margery giggled. “Where is he?”

And please remember, no one can hiss a sentence that contains no esses.


Bonus point: is it dialogue or dialog? The shorter version seems to have come into use in the computer industry in the 1980s and spread from there, but both Merriam-Webster andgremlin-3 the Associated Press Stylebook prefer dialogue. Some sources make that distinction: dialog as a computer term and dialogue for conversation in novels or plays. If you type the word enough times, it looks funny either way.


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