Punctuation and Capitalization of Dialogue Tags

I’ve been helping copyedit on an amateur fiction site. I’m not a professional copyeditor, but I think I have a pretty good grasp of English grammar, punctuation, and capitalization.

I keep encountering writers who do things like this (most common):

“This is what I’m saying.” She said.

or this, also pretty common:

“I’m talking to you here,” She said.

or this (rare, but included for completeness):

“Someone needs to teach me grammar.” she said.

What I was taught in school, and every grammar help site that I’ve checked, says none of the above is correct, and THIS is the right way to do it:

“This sentence is correct,” she said.

I’m getting some obstinacy from some of the people I’m helping; they insist what they’re doing is valid. But so far, none of them can find any online cites to back them up. Where might they have learned such bad habits in the first place? Are any of those first three forms considered correct in some bizarro land? Was it ever considered correct at one time, but has since been supplanted?

I’ve also checked for UK/US differences, and so far, I seem to be correct on both sides of the Atlantic.

*** Ponder

Your corrected example–comma, uncapitalized–is correct.

Now you know what a pain copyedited writers can be. And to answer your other questions, none of the wrong examples–your first three–has ever been correct, to my knowledge. Where might they have picked them up? Laziness and apathy.

You’re correct – speech tags are not capitalized as though they were a sentence (unless the word is a proper noun like “Joe said.”)

Yep, that’s right. Dealing with obstinate writers is why copy editors drink, you know. So get yourself a bottle of booze and start having a drink whenever you copy edit. Just one, mind you. If it’s more than one, you’ll tell them what you really think. And if it’s red wine, it’s actually good for you.

What you can do to help yourself, without asking for outside sources, is to make a style book for the site that all submissions have to conform to. A style book is a set of guidelines that tell how things are to be punctuated, capitalized, etc. It will dictate situations like these, so you don’t argue with the writers. You’ll have to be a bit of a hard-ass sometimes, but if it’s not what the style book says, then it’s not what goes on the site. It will make your job, and the job of anyone else who copy edits, a lot easier.

Very good suggestion. I’ve written style books for 2 of the places I’ve worked. It’s invaluable for those “because I said so moments,” even more so than for the situation you’re faced with. Keep in mind that many of the things you’ll come across–comma usage, hyphenation, e.g.–are pretty arbitrary. These arbitrary issues are exactly when you’ll need a style book, because the writer will be correct in arguing that his/her usage is equally correct. In such instances, someone–you–needs to make the arbitrary decision (i.e., “style choice”) and enforce its consistency.

Good luck; I drink heavily too.

Thanks for all the responses. I’m comfortable now going back to the people who claimed they were taught one of the wrong forms in school, and telling them that they’re full of it. :slight_smile: I’ll probably be more polite about it, though. :smiley:

Unfortunately, I don’t have editorial control at the site; I’m just a regular reader/member there, not a moderator. Authors get to post their stories without anyone approving them first, similar to Livejournal. Then readers get to post public or private reviews. I’m limited to being as persuasive as I can in getting writers to fix the problems I find.

If the grammar/punctuation/etc. is really bad, readers can flag the story for moderator attention and possible quarantine (made invisible to other readers on the site until fixed). I asked about this particular problem and was told that while irksome, the site standards aren’t so stringent that this issue alone would qualify a story to get quarantined.

One of the moderators on that site read this thread, and agreed with you that I should drink more. :smack:

*** Ponder

Not only are you copyediting, you have no way to force the changes?

You may need more than one drink.

Definitely. I’m sending you some heroin.

Yes, the big guns are definitely called for here. You really only have option, Ponder: start buying box wine, because you are going to be drinking a lot to cope. Jeezum crow, you poor guy.

Is there any way you can set up a beta/editor circuit, so the most egregious offenders get some mentorship?

For the absolute best of the bunch, the ones I can’t wait to read the next installments of their stories, I do offer to become their official beta. As for the rest, I just don’t have the time.

I’m not going to start drinking over this. I didn’t mean to present it otherwise, but this is something I do on a purely volunteer ad-hoc basis. I see an otherwise pretty good story on the site that has some problems, and I offer my help. Most of the authors are quite happy to accept my help, and they do improve their subsequent writing once they’ve been told the rules. It’s the exceptions I’m ranting about. All of the ones I’ve approached are pretty good story-tellers, otherwise I would never have bothered offering in the first place. It’s not my job to polish everything to perfection on the site, and if it was, I’d be looking for something stronger than heroin. :slight_smile: Sturgeon’s Law definitely applies here.

I’ve found two pretty good dialogue punctuation guides that I point writers to:


I’m always looking for better ones; does anyone here have a favorite they use?

Thanks for the sympathy. :slight_smile: Btw, it’s not “guy” :wink: I know, I’ve got a neutral handle.

*** Ponder

Sorry if this is considered a zombie thread (is ~6 weeks too long?), but I found something interesting that partially answers one of my questions in the OP.

In my search for better guides to point offenders to, I found this one which does a pretty good job of concisely explaining the rules for punctuating speech tags. And at the bottom of the page, they added this:

It’s too bad that guide doesn’t cover the action/tag attribution distinction. I can tell from the parent page that the guide’s author understands the distinction, but they consider it so basic that they didn’t think it worth giving directions to those who don’t get it. :slight_smile:

A couple others I’ve found that are better than the ones I linked earlier upthread:


*** Ponder

Hmm, BigT thought. It seems to leave out one convention I’m used to.

Please tell me I don’t have to spell out what it is.

“So how would you right this out,” asked Tr0psn4j.

Is that correct? I know you’re right and your other examples are wrong but what I find confusing is dialogue that involves asking a question.

Or is this the right way to do it?

“So how would you right this out?” asked Tr0psn4j.

The word “she” would only be capitalized after a quotation if the person’s name was actually She.

The latter. You include the question mark (or exclamation point) inside the quotes.

Please note, folks: when BigT posted to this thread this morning in Post #12, the prior post was from 18 months earlier. So, this is a zombie being resurrected.

That’s OK in Cafe Society, I just want you to be aware of it. If you’re responding to a post that’s more than 18 months prior, the poster may not come back to you. Or even see it.

When I first saw your posting in my email alert, I did scratch my head and wonder… Because italics are lost when this board sends a copy via email. On preview, I’m reminded this board’s quote feature will also confuse things, unless I leave out the attribution:

Yes, those resources I’ve found kind of skimp on the details when it comes to thought tags, and those that do cover them fail to mention the common convention of using italics, or altering the quote marks to indicate nonstandard forms of speech.

That one’s punctuated and capitalized correctly. But when you write, watch out for homonyms. Spell-check won’t catch awl mistakes.

*** Ponder

Just checking to see if you still have your editing skills.


One thing you will see regularly in good writers is the avoiding of repetitive “he said” lines or Appeltonian ejaculations by the creative use of attributions that carry other information, usually as separate sentences. For example:

“Your corrected example … is correct.” Lissener was adamant in his view.

This conveys the information that lissener was the speaker but provides additional information, deftly helping to build characterization and background without using a large amount of purple-prose description.

“Come here, Alan Quatermain,” She said with a sultry air.