Grammatical Rules for Dialogue

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

When we talk, we don't think about how the conversation works. We simply speak. But what about when people are speaking in the form of a text or story? How do we decipher feeling or speaker? In this lesson, we will learn about the grammatical rules associated with writing dialogue.

He Said, She Said

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. It's an action that we partake in every day. But what about when we read a novel or article? Or better yet, what if our goal is to write a novel or article? Read on to learn about the grammatical ins and outs of writing dialogue.

The Basics

Before we get started, let's take a look at the parts of a sentence that contain dialogue. Take the example below:

''Let's go to the mall,'' said Jane.

  • The phrase, ''Let's go to the mall,'' is being spoken by Jane. Quotation marks always frame the words being spoken to let the reader know when the dialogue begins and ends.
  • The first letter of the first word is capitalized, just as it would be in a regular sentence.
  • 'Said Jane' is called a dialogue tag or attribution. Here, the word 'said' is used to describe Jane's words and show who is speaking, but there are many options that can be substituted, such as remarked, screamed, stated, or sobbed.
  • There is a comma separating the dialogue from the dialogue tag.
  • The entire sentence, the dialogue and dialogue tag, ends with a period, just as any other sentence does.

Now that we know the basics, let's delve deeper into the punctuation and grammatical rules associated with simple and complex sentences.

Sentences, Dialogue Tags, and Action

Look at the examples below to reference how to place punctuation in different types of basic sentence structures that contain dialogue.

Single line of dialogue, no dialogue tag

''I want a cat.''

In this example, there is no dialogue tag. Therefore, the entire line of dialogue, including the punctuation, goes inside of the quotation marks.

Single line of dialogue with dialogue tag

''I want a cat,'' she said.

In this example, the words being spoken, and the comma separating the dialogue from the dialogue tag, go inside of the quotation marks. The dialogue tag, the part not being spoken, is outside of the quotation marks. There is a period after said to end the sentence.

The same rules apply if the dialogue tag is written before the dialogue. For example: She said, ''I love cats.'' The only difference lies in the punctuation. The punctuation within the dialogue now becomes the period instead of the comma.

Single line of dialogue with dialogue tag and action

Here, we see the dialogue and the dialogue tag followed by another comma and an additional phrase which adds context.

''I want a cat,'' she said, hoping her dad would give in.

The same concept is applied when the action comes first:

Hoping her dad would give in, she said, ''I want a cat for my birthday.''

Dialogue interrupted by dialogue tag

Here, we find a sentence that is cut in half with the dialogue tag. The punctuation at the end of each phrase goes inside of the quotation marks, and there is a comma after the dialogue tag.

''I want a cat,'' she said, ''but not a calico.''

The same rules apply if there are two sentences. The only change is the addition of a period after 'said' to complete the sentence.

''I want a cat,'' she said. ''But not a calico.''

Question/Exclamation Marks

Like a period, these punctuation marks end sentences. But what if they occur in dialogue? No matter where these marks fall in dialogue, they will always be inside of the quotation mark. Let's take a look at some examples to clarify the grammatical elements.

''Do you want a cat?'' or ''I want a cat!''

Both sentences have the punctuation inside of the quotation marks.

If there is a dialogue tag, the same format will occur.

''I want a cat!'' she screamed at her mother, unable to control her anger.

''Do you really want a cat?'' the mother asked her daughter.

Notice in both examples, even though there is more to the entire sentence, the quotation mark and the question mark both fall inside of the quotation marks replacing the comma.

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