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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Grammar Wars: The Dialogue Battle

Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness something special.  You're about to see the start of a new series of posts titled "Grammar Wars".  These posts will be your swords and shields so you can battle the evil grammar monster and emerge alive and (relatively) unscathed.  I don't know how regularily I'll post them yet.  They'll probably just show up randomly when I think of something.
First, we're going to start out with a nasty little group of villains that make no sense.  They love to confuse writers and make them want to bash their heads against the wall.  Well, bash no more, because I shall (at least try to) explain. Note: This post will cover only the technical grammar aspects of dialogue.  Later I'll cover other aspects.

A dialogue tag is a set of words placed directly before or after dialogue.  He said, she said, I yelled, and so on.  If you've got just a piece of dialogue with a tag, it'll look like this:
"I just went to the store," he said. 

Let's look at that again.
"I just went to the store." He said.
"I just went to the store," He said.

"I just went to the store," he said.
Note the comma and lowercase h.  Never use a period before a dialogue tag.  Always use a comma, and never capitalize the next word unless it's I or a name.

"Did you buy me anything," she asked.

"Did you buy me anything?" she asked.
This is a question mark, so don't use a comma.  Don't use one instead of an exclamation point, either.

"No," he replied.  "But I knew I was forgetting something."

"No," he replied, "but I knew I was forgetting something."
Since No, but I knew I was forgetting something. is actually one sentence, you use a comma before the tag, and a comma after the tag.

"Aww," Susie pouted.

"Aww."  Susie pouted.
There's no comma here, since Susie pouted. isn't a dialogue tag.  It's simply stating an action.  You can't pout a word, can you?

"How did you do that" he asked.
"I talked to him yesterday" he said.

"How did you do that?" he asked.
"I talked to him yesterday," he said.
You always need puncuation with your dialogue.

"Hey, that was funny," I laughed. 
You can't laugh a word.  You can't smile it either, and if you hiss it, it'd better have an s unless you speak Parseltongue. 

"Hey, that was funny."  I laughed. 
I laughed isn't a tag, it's just a sentence. 

"Hello everyone" he said.
"Hello everyone", he said.

"Hello everyone," he said.
You always, always, always need punctuation inside your quotes.  Always.  I can't think of a reason you wouldn't.

"Billy, did you do your homework?" the teacher asked.  "No, my dog ate it," Billy replied.

"Billy, did you do your homework?" the teacher asked.
"No, my dog ate it," Billy replied.
Always, always, always start a new line for each new speaker. 

I don't know why the rules are so confusing.  I didn't write them.  Yes, I know they don't make sense.  You just have to learn to deal with it.

I hope that helped.  Since I probably forgot something (or quite a few things), there's also a really great article here.  The best way to learn all these rules is simply to read a lot of books.  Books have a lot of dialogue, and hopefully you'll learn how it works as you read.  Pay close attention, and watch where punctuation is placed in different situations.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

Brought to you by your resident Grammar Nazi. 
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  1. This is awesome! I have horrible grammar, which is sad since I'm a writer, but it's true, I have horrible grammar. For example I didn't know you had to add commas instead of periods in some cases, I always added periods. And I just found that out last year on Inkpop.

  2. @Peony: Thanks! Yeah, the rules are tricky to learn sometimes.

  3. *epic*

    I knew most of these, but I've always been a little iffy with question marks and exclamation points. You definitely cleared that up for me.


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