Writing 101: Dialogue Tagging

There are many working parts to a piece of fiction. Characters, plot, setting, narrative… I could go on.


And while a lot of these are big, difficult things to tackle, all barbed in their own way, there is one thing that’s fairly simple, and makes a world of difference if done right, and yet is so often done wrongly. It’s always curious to us, when we’re judging and editing, how people can be such talented writers, and yet not know their way around a dialogue tag.


Some people say it’s not really a big deal - but I’ve heard from editors working for publishers that a book fraught with tagging errors is a nightmare to work with, and is usually more trouble than it's worth. It’s one of those little mistakes that persists right through, and sticks out like a sore thumb, making it not only painful to correct, but also tedious too. I’ve even heard that agents can be put off by it, so you’d best start keeping an eye on yours.


If you don’t know what tagging is, it’s that thing after the dialogue (or before) that usually appears something like ‘Mary said.’


'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' asked Lionel.

But, there’s a little more to it than just sticking that on the end. I’m one of those people who firmly believes in learning by doing, so I’m going to write a little passage of inane dialogue below, and use some tags. I’m then going to go over them along with their rules for you to keep in mind.

Oh, and before we start - I’ll be using British standard speech marks, that being the single inverted comma. This is the norm for British publications, and if you’re trying to get published in the UK, I recommend using the single inverted, instead of the American double (which is the standard for subs across the pond).


The bell over the door rang and Mary walked in.

‘Hullo, Mary,’ the shopkeeper said.

‘Hi, Charlie.’ Mary nodded and began pursuing a shelf filled with butter.

‘Oh, if you’re after some butter...’ Charlie said, moving around the counter, ‘we’ve just had some Kerrygold in. Lovely Irish stuff,’ he laughed.

‘Hmm,’ Mary mused, tapping her finger on her chin.

‘Don’t you like Irish butter?’ the shopkeeper asked.

‘It’s not that, it’s just...’ She paused and turned, grinning. ‘Gerald only likes Lurpak.’

Charlie smiled, and said, ‘well, that’s a fine choice, too.’

‘Don’t be daft - I hate the stuff!’ She scoffed.


Ok, so it’s not Hemingway, I’ll admit. But what it does is showcase all the different tags, and how they work. While some are self explanatory, others work a little more subtly. I’ll explain.

The first line:


‘Hullo, Mary,’ the shopkeeper said.


This is your standard he/she said tag. If you’re using this tag, even if it’s the end of a sentence, you should use a comma, as above, to signify that the two clauses are linked - the dialogue, and the tag itself. If there was a full stop after Mary, then the tag would become a sentence on its own, which would make no sense. A sentence, syntactically, must always have a subject, and a verb. But, because ‘said’ is a transitive verb, the sentence cannot be considered complete unless there’s an object for the subject to act on. Ie. the shopkeeper must say something. The tag allows it to function as sentence because the dialogue is the object in this case. As such, the dialogue must have a comma if you’re using a tag, and the word immediately following it should be lower case - of course, unless it’s a pronoun.


‘Hi, Charlie.’ Mary nodded and began pursuing a shelf filled with butter.


Because we have a full stop here, we signify not only the end of the dialogue, but also the end of the sentence. Because of this, the next sentence isn’t technically a dialogue tag, but the beginning of another clause. You don’t always have to have a dialogue tag. Often, it’s best to have one if you need to signify who’s speaking, reassure the reader of it, or add some sort of inflection like whispered, or growled. Though, you should always be sparing with these, but we’ll cover that in another post. For now, let's stay on topic. The sentence where Mary nods has nothing to do with the dialogue, and works separately from it to show her doing something unrelated (grammatically) to the speech. If you’re using a full stop, you should never tag. It’s also good to note that when one character addresses another in this way, it’s customary to include a comma before their name. The same goes for goodbyes. ‘Bye, Charlie.’


‘Oh, if you’re after some butter...’ Charlie said, moving around the counter, ‘we’ve just had some Kerrygold in. Lovely Irish stuff,’ he laughed.


An ellipsis, or the three dots you see above, are the first tricky thing we come to, because as well as functioning as soft punctuation (like a comma) as it does above, it can also function as hard punctuation (like a full stop). Here, because we’re using it to signify Charlie trailing off as he moves around the counter, rather than pausing between clauses, it functions as soft punctuation. This can be a little confusing, because above, Charlie has a capital letter. This is because it’s a pronoun, and therefore overrides the lowercase rule outlined above. If I’d have used ‘the shopkeeper’ instead, then it would have been lowercase, as in the first line. However, Pronouns must always retain their capitalisation. This leads us onto the second part, where we’re using a precursory tag. As it’s all one sentence, broken by us describing an action that Charlie is carrying out, we avoid hard punctuation. We can see that Charlie continues to talk, and because both speech segments are linked, there is no capital letter. We simply put a comma after the precursory tag, and then go back into the continued dialogue where we left off.


‘Hmm,’ Mary mused, tapping her finger on her chin.


Here, we can see that we’re using a speech tag, but because it’s a Pronoun, we’re keeping the capital ‘M’ for Mary.


‘Don’t you like Irish butter?’ the shopkeeper asked.


The question mark, like the ellipsis (above) and the exclamation point (below) can function as both hard and soft punctuation. In this line, because we’re using the shopkeeper asked as a speech tag, we don’t capitalise, as it’s all one sentence. This is one of the most common mistakes we see, and though it may not look perfect, a lowercase word following (except for the Pronoun rule) is both appropriate and correct.


‘It’s not that, it’s just...’ She paused and turned, grinning. ‘Gerald only likes Lurpak.’


In this line, we see the ellipsis being used as hard punctuation. Though the two speech segments could function as one piece of dialogue, the way that this is punctuated, and the use of the word paused signifies to the reader that they are two distinct utterances by Mary. The first is a clause, the second is a clause, not a tag, and the third is a clause too. It could also have been written as one continuous line, if we substituted paused for something else. ‘It’s not that, it’s just that…’ she muttered and turned, grinning, ‘Gerald only likes Lurpak.’


Though, this one comes down to personal preference. You need to ask what you want to achieve and how you want it to be read. I want Mary to come across as a little bit bashful, and almost embarrassed that she has to turn down Charlie’s offer of Kerrygold. The lingering pause signified by the hard punctuation adds to that little bit of tension and creates a sense of trepidation. It’s only small, and the effect is minimal, but it’s a conscious decision that carries contextual weight. It doesn’t matter so much whether you use hard, or soft punctuation, so long as you adhere to the rules of grammar and dialogue tagging. The three separate clauses above function as three simple sentences alone, or as three clauses of one complex sentence together. We’ll be doing another post on sentence structure and construction soon to go into more detail with this. But, for now, concentrate on the tags.


Charlie smiled, and said, ‘well, that’s a fine choice, too.’


Here, again, we’re exhibiting the standard precursory tag, though we’re displaying how a comma can work with the word too, too.


‘Don’t be daft - I hate the stuff!’ She scoffed.


This is the last line, and sees the use of the exclamative point as hard punctuation, which changes the relationship of the words following. I wanted to use this example as scoff is one of those words that can be used in the same way as sigh, grumbled, squawked, and a few more. It’s both a way of saying something, and an action in itself. By using a capital ‘S’ for she, I’m letting the reader know that the exclamative is a hard punctuation mark, and that it ends the sentence. She says it, then she scoffs. If I was to write it ‘I hate the stuff!’ she scoffed, then it would mean that she was scoffing the words. The reader will interpret the sentence one of two ways depending on how you use your capitals.


Did you know horses can sleep standing up?

Don’t think correct capitalisation is important? Well, capitals can make the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off his horse, and helping your uncle jack… Yeah, you get the idea.



And there you have it. That covers pretty much all the speech tags there are. But, before we round up, I want to add a few hard and fast rules for you to always keep in mind, too:

  • Punctuation always goes inside the speech marks.

  • Whether you use ‘Mary said,’ or ‘said Mary,’ it doesn’t matter - just make sure you capitalise correctly.

  • If you find ‘said’ or ‘asked’ becoming boring, then consider removing them, if possible, before swapping them out for some other more flowery verb. Always remember that less is more, and things can only have an impact with the reader if they come unexpectedly.

Otherwise, if you have any questions regarding speech and dialogue tagging, or you want to weigh in on this post, then head over to our Twitter page, and comment on the Tweet or simply Tweet to us.


Thanks for reading, and as always, see you soon.

Dan

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