Punctuation 101: Dialogue Tags

There are two types of dialogue tags: “said” tags and “action” tags.

Said Tags

A said tag assigns the dialogue to a speaker by using the word “said” or a variation of that word (asked, yelled, whispered, etc). A said tag is connected to the dialogue with a comma, unless the dialogue is a question or requires an exclamation point. When using a said tag, the pronoun is lowercase unless you are using a proper name. Pay attention to the underlined parts of the examples for proper punctuation.

Sample Said Tags:

     “I’m sorry,” the girl said.

     “I am the President of the United States,” Abraham said.

     “What do you want?” she asked.

     “What do you want?” Kate asked.

     “Leave me alone!” he screamed.

     “Leave me alone!” Mike screamed.

     “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said, “but I’m one of them.” (In this example, the said tag interrupted the dialogue. If you do this, make sure the interruption is in a natural place for your character to pause. Read the dialogue out loud to see what sounds best.)

       “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said. “I’m one of them.” (Here the said tag came between two complete sentences.)

       Mindy took a deep breath and said, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’m one of them.” (The “Mindy took a deep” part of the example is an action tag. But if you combine action with a said tag, you need to punctuate like a said tag.)

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Action Tags

An action tag is a complete sentence that identifies the speaker by what they are doing. Because we see a character’s action in the same paragraph as dialogue, we know they are the speaker. Since action tags are sentences, they are punctuated like sentences.

Sample Action Tags:

     Krista rolled her eyes and sighed. “What do you want, Paul?”

     “Get out!” Beth slammed the door in her mother’s face.

     “If you want to come, get in.” Kyle opened the car door. “Just don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.”

     “If you want to come, get in,” Kyle opened the car door, “but don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.”

In special cases when an action interrupts dialogue in a quick way, use em dashes to set this off. Since the break belongs to the sentence, rather than the dialogue inside, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.

     “Before we start”—the knight plunged one of the blades into the grassy soil—“we need to go over the basics.”

4 Responses to “Punctuation 101: Dialogue Tags”

  1. gabriellan says:

    I never knew what an action tag was called. Huh. You really do learn something new every day!

  2. Barbara Shoff says:

    So, do tags including she laughed, grinned, stared, (facial expressions constitute action? I’m confused.

    • Jill Williamson says:

      She laughed. –This would be an action tags since one can’t “laugh” dialogue. Facial expressions are actions, yes. But “She laughed.” or “She stared.” –those are both really generic action tags, meaning that they don’t do anything to characterize or describe the character or the setting. It’s better to work hard to come up with something more specific. Like:

      Brad walked into the room and leaned against the door frame. “What’s up?”

      OR

      Brad wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

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