Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.
You’d think that as much as writers should be reading that they’d understand how dialogue tags work. Well...they don’t. More and more authors are trying to publish work without dialogue tags properly done. Woe are the readers!
Dialogue tags are the added words to dialogue that help to denote who is speaking and how they are speaking.
“Who is there?” she called out.
“I want it now!” he demanded.
“He went into the store,” Sally informed the police officer.
She whispered, “I can’t move.”
Dialogue tags are the parts of sentences that are not enclosed in the quotation marks. So what can an author do wrong with them? Oh, let me tell you. Here are a few examples of what I’ve seen from authors:
“Who is there?” She called out.
She whispered “I can’t move.”
See the issues? The dialogue tag is not a separate sentence, and it needs a comma to separate it where appropriate from the dialogue. Don’t use a comma if there is a question mark or exclamation mark where the comma would go. Please pay attention to these tags. They are important.
There are some basic rules in grammar and how to deal with compound sentences is one of them. Okay, the basics have been more complicated in recent years by the ‘expert’ grammarologists (not sure if a real word but it is now).
Compound sentences are two or more sentences joined together to form one longer sentence. Traditionally, a comma is to go before the conjunction that pulls the sentences together. For example:
Janet decided to go on to college to study biology, but she wanted to travel to Europe before she bucked down to her studies.
The conjunction pulling the sentences together is ‘but’, and the comma goes before it. (See how I used a compound sentences within the article itself?) You need to have that comma so the reader knows where one idea ends and another begins. Writers leave that comma out all the time. Granted I do too sometimes, but an edit and proofreading should catch it.
But there is an exception according to the experts in the Chicago Manual of Style. If the compound sentence is short, the comma is not needed. For example:
The cat jumped in the air and the dog ran for cover.
To some this is short enough to warrant skipping the comma, but it can still be used. Personally I think compound sentences should always have the comma. Why? Because you’ll get in the habit of not using them and forget to use them when you should.
This is another big mistake I see so many authors make. Even after I point it out to them, they continue to do it. So frustrating!
A run-on sentence is a sentence that is too many sentences in one without the proper joining. Let me show you a proper sentence and then the run-on version. It will be very self-explanatory.
There are many things we could do tonight it is so boring.
There are many things we could do tonight; it is so boring.
Either make the clauses into two separate sentences or combine with a conjunction or semicolon. Sentences should run smooth and be able to be diagramed easily. Yes, diagramming sentences wasn’t a waste of time. It can be a great tool to help you create solid sentences.
I have to admit, I mix these up all the time. If it weren't for my word processing software, I’d be in more trouble than I am with these two troublemakers. I recently looked up the difference, and can only claim errors going forward.
'Affect' is almost always a verb.
'Effect' is almost always a noun.
Check out http://web.ku.edu/~edit/affect.html for a more detailed explanation.
There are exceptions, but the odds of any of us using those exceptions are few and far between. So, let’s stick with the simple mantra - a=verb and e=noun.
So to have an effect, you have to have something that affects you. How’s that?
Oh, the clauses and the commas they need at times! So many people ignore them or use them poorly. In fact, most don’t even understand what a clause is.
What is a Clause?
A clause is technically a portion of a sentence that delivers a message. It can be a dependent clause that cannot stand alone or it can be an independent one that can be a complete sentence by itself.
Here are a few examples:
He walked into the bar when he saw his old friend walking down the street.
The independent clause is “he walked into the bar” The dependent clause is “when he saw his old friend walking down the street.”.
During the exam, Kay felt sick to her stomach.
The independent clause is “Kay felt sick to her stomach.” the dependent clause is “during the exam.”
Naturally, dependent clauses flow after an independent clause:
He walked into the bar when he saw his old friend walking down the street.
But if you moved the words around a bit while keeping the clauses together, a comma would be needed to show the difference between the clauses:
When he saw his old friend walking down the street, he walked into the bar.
The comma does what the ‘when’ does in the first sentence. Grammatically so we can understand the sentence, the ‘when’ has to remain, but the secondary purpose it has is removed and replaced with the comma.
Even though it is obvious which one is which, our fingers love to type the wrong word. It doesn’t help that even in editing, our eyes see the sound and let the wrong word slip through. These three are trouble.
‘Two’ is the written form of 2. It is a number and should only be used as a number. Most people get this right. It’s the other two authors get mixed up.
‘Too’ is used in two different instances. It can be used to mean ‘also’ as in “John wants to go with us too” which could also mean “John also wants to go with us.” It can also mean an abundance or an overabundance of something like “It took too many hours to get the project done.”
‘To’ is more a directive. “John handed the pen to Mary.” The pen went in the direction of Mary. If you are going to the store, the direction heads in the direction of the store.
While editing, I see these all the time. You should never have a sentence fragment. Okay, there are a few exceptions to this rule, but they are so few that just assume you can never use a sentence fragment.
Went to the store.
This is a sentence fragment, and yes I did see that in a manuscript submitted for editing. Now this would only be acceptable in a piece of dialogue if I had asked you where your brother went and this is all you said in reply. Perfectly acceptable. Outside of that, it is a very big no-no.
A sentence has to have two basic components to be complete. There has to be a subject which our example sentence is lacking. It is the who of went to the store. Then you have to have a verb. If John is the subject, then he has to have done something. In this case, he went to the store and the ‘went’ is the verb.
Technically, the sentence can read John went. It is grammatically correct, but from a reader’s standpoint, it is blah. You need to add an object, the store, at the very least to give the reader more info.
Don’t leave sentence fragments. Make sure you have a subject and a verb with a possible object.
Over and over I see authors using more than one exclamation point in their manuscripts. You should never use more than one per sentence.
'No!!!!!!!' is not acceptable. To get your point across just use one exclamation point and then describe the voice in a way that says the same emotion. '!!!!!!' is okay in texting. it is not okay in writing a novel.
Please don’t ever use all capital letters unless you are writing an acronym. Even if you are trying to stress a volume level or an emotion, that should done be with words and not with all caps. There are many creative ways to write that someone screamed at someone instead of using all caps in your writing.
You’d think this was obvious, but many authors forget this detail. They forget one set or both. I’ve seen it in books I am editing and those I have purchased to read. Make sure that you have all dialogue, and only the actual dialogue, set in quotation marks. Don’t miss even one or it changes how the reader sees the story.
Too often authors don’t capitalize where they should. I’ve seen works where the first word in a sentence is not capitalized as well as proper nouns. Pay attention to what should be capitalized and what should not. That includes the name and abbreviations of states, city, and the title of people.
Every author starts out doing this. It makes sense. It is what we are most familiar with. But it is not how you write.
That being said, you can be more casual in your writing which gives the appearance of the writer talking to the reader, but you need to be more formal when you are writing a book.
Don’t use slang. Don’t use incorrect words. Many people say they will 'borrow me' a book. They really mean they will 'loan me' a book. Even in speech this is wrong, but please correct it when you write it.
Mark B. on September 24, 2017:
While I agree with most of your points, I would like to point out that Mark Twain would vehemently disagree with your final one.