Exact words spoken
Based on the U.S. system, not the British
- “Help!” he yelled.
- He yelled for help.
- (No quotation marks because these are not the exact words he yelled.)
- “I won’t be home until tomorrow,” she explained. “My car broke down.”
- She explained that she wouldn’t be home until tomorrow. Her car broke down.
- (No quotation marks because these are not the exact words she spoke.)
Some are short, and others are more creative. Words that say who is speaking should introduce the conversation with a comma. If the dialogue tag is an action (a complete sentence on its own), finish it with a period.
- He said,
- She replied,
- The best man answered,
Action tag examples:
- The groom dropped to his knees.
- She raised him and gave him a big hug.
- The best man grabbed them each by the hand.
Position of dialogue tags
When the tag precedes the words spoken, it normally ends with a comma. The words spoken begin with a capital letter.
Capitalize the first letter of the quoted words, regardless of where it falls in the main sentence.
- He said, “I have no idea what you mean.”
- Sara replied, “Well, if you would listen, you would understand.”
- The best man answered, “Excuse me, but you two have better things to do right now than fight over little things.”
Action dialogue tags end in periods.
An action tag is usually a complete sentence, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period. If it begins the sentence, capitalize the first letter of the quoted words that follow.
- The groom dropped to his knees. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
- She raised him and gave him a big hug. “It’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked.”
- The best man grabbed them each by the hand. “Hurry! We’re going to be late.”
The dialogue tag interrupts the sentence
The beginning part of the spoken words ends with a comma inside the closing quotation mark. The tag is then followed by a comma before the rest of the spoken words.
The dialogue tag is only capitalized if it begins with a proper noun or begins the sentence. The closing part of the spoken sentence begins with a lower-case letter (unless it’s a proper noun).
Speaking dialogue tags in the beginning or middle of a sentence end in commas.
- “I have no idea,” he said, “what you mean.”
- “Well, if you would listen,” Sara replied, “you would understand.”
- “Excuse me,” the best man answered, “Sara and Michael, you two have better things to do right now that fight over little things.”
Thoughts (silent speech)
Consistency is important as some writers feel that too much italicized text makes for difficult reading.
If using quotation marks and the reader needs to know that these words are not spoken aloud, an appropriate dialogue tag will clarify the silence of the words.
- When should I go? she wondered.
- (Italicized thought with an optional dialogue tag. The first letter of the dialogue tag is in lower case, unless it begins the sentence.)
- When should I go? She looked at her watch.
- (Italicized thought with an action tag. The first letter of the action tag is capitalized.)
- “When should I go?” she wondered.
- (Thought in quotation marks, not italicized, needs a dialogue tag to indicate to the reader that nobody else hears this.)