The Grammar Grump: Dialogue Tags

A few years ago, when the kid was smaller and far less lippy, he was obsessed with a series of children’s books. Wonderful books, with interesting story lines and well drawn characters, and there were at least fifty of them at the time. One Christmas, we got a few of them on tape and listened as we drove across the country to the grandparents’ house. Nearly every line of dialogue was followed  by a ‘said.’ When you read these books to yourself, you don’t notice them. But when they are read aloud, wow. It became a game as we all shouted ‘said!’ every 30 seconds as the book progressed.

wordle 2I was thinking of this today as I judged a contest entry. After nearly every line of dialogue, there was a dialogue tag–those words used to convey information about the speaker. But because this author had probably heard somewhere that using ‘said’ is boring, she used other words too, including: remarked, explained, asked, instructed, huffed, purred, challenged, inquired, sniffed, whispered, concurred, warned, murmured, intoned, and added. And all of those were in the first few pages. An occasional asked, explained, or whispered is fine, but one doesn’t speak and sniff at the same time–go ahead, try it. In addition, many of the tags were peppered with adverbs–softly whispered, quickly explained. I should add that this entry was otherwise quite well written, but the ridiculous dialogue tags and excessive adverbs may have ruined the author’s chance to final in the category.

So, how to fix this problem? I am not saying a writer should never use dialogue tags. They are essential to clarify who is speaking, especially if there are more than two people in a scene. But you don’t need them all the time. Try a line of dialogue followed, or preceded, by a character’s action or expression. For example:

“You must be joking.” Robert laughed at the thought.
Evelyn sneered. “You’ll see.”

When you do use a dialogue tag, keep it simple. As I noted above, I hadn’t realized the children’s book author used ‘said’ so often, because when I read her stories, ‘said’ faded into the background. It conveys the identity of the speaker without beating the reader over the head. If you want to show a speaker’s emotion, or expression, try it another way:

His smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care, my lord.” She shrugged and turned away.

Pick up a book by your favorite author. How do they use dialogue tags? You may be surprised when you look more closely. The following exchange is from Julia’s Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding. The characters are discussing what it must feel like to know you’re in love:

She lifted her eyes to his, made breathless by the gravity of of her own revelations.”It’s too much,” she heard herself say. “It would be too much. I wouldn’t. . . I wouldn’t. . .”
Slowly, he shook his head. “You would have no choice. It would be beyond your control. It just . . . happens.”
Her mouth parted with surprise. “That’s what she said.”
And when she answered, her voice was strangely detached, as if the words were being drawn straight from her memory. “Hermione,” she said. “That’s what Hermione said about Mr. Edmonds.”
Gregory’s lips tightened at the corners. “Did she?”
Lucy slowly nodded. “Almost precisely. She said it just happens. In an instant.”

There are plenty of other posts out there that go into more detail, and even a few books. Some of the better blog posts are these:

How do you feel about dialogue tags, as a reader or a writer?




The Grammar Grump: Apostrophes

Ah, the apostrophe. Like the comma, it’s so little and so misunderstood. Again, I have scoured the internet looking for memes, and again, they are everywhere.

<–This pic comes from the website of The Independent–the article is entertaining.

But I digress.


The rules:

1.  Use the apostrophe to show possession.
Ex.: I went to Sara’s house. That is Erica’s sweatshirt. The boy’s hat is blue. The boys’ hats are blue. The Smiths’ house is down the street.

2.  Use the apostrophe to replace omitted letters in contractions.
Ex. Don’t = do not. It’s = it is. Wouldn’t = would not. ’90s = 1990s. (Note the absence of an apostrophe before the s in that last example.)

3. Use the apostrophe to form plurals of lowercase letters.
Ex. Mind your p’s and q’s. Learn your abc’s. 

These are the only times you should use an apostrophe. 

But naturally, the English language being what it is, it is not so simple, so here is some clarification on common errors and exceptions.

*Do not use an apostrophe for a word that ends in s unless you are making it a possessive.
Ex. Our year-end sales were strong.  The sale’s tomorrow. 

*For family names that end in s, the correct form of the plural is es, and the possessive plural is es’.
Ex. I am friends with the Joneses. My daughter loves to play at the Joneses’ house.

*Do not use an apostrophe to make a regular noun or a name plural.
Ex. Incorrect: Apostrophe’s are not that confusing. Correct: Apostrophes are not that confusing.  Incorrect: I know three Kim’s. Correct: I know three Kims. 

*For possessive words ending in s (or z), you can use either an apostrophe alone or an apostrophe s. Both are correct, but be consistent in the form you use. Ex. Chris’ grades were fabulous last semester. Mr. Velasquez’s dog is named Spot. 

*It’s = it is. Its is a possessive.
Ex. It’s a girl! Its name is Bob. Do not mix them up!!! Think of it this way: If you can substitute “it is,” use it’s. Easy, right?

I have seen this cartoon —->
in a number of places online, but I don’t know where it originated or I would attribute it. If anyone knows, please tell me. 🙂

Some links for more information:

An entire site devoted to apostrophes! www.badapostrophes.comBad Apostrophes - Calling out misplaced punctuation marks since 2010

This fun quiz: (My result, in case you were wondering, was “The Pedant’s Grammarian.” I assume no one is surprised.)

The Grammar Girl has many, many posts about the apostrophe, but here’s the first basic one: (be sure to click through to the last page to find a lovely song about the apostrophe–who knew?)


The Grammar Grump: Commas

Here we are at my inaugural grumpy post about grammar. By request, and because the misuse of them is my biggest pet peeve, today’s post features commas.

Google “comma memes” and you’ll find dozens of them, most happily bashing people who can’t seem to figure out how to use them. For this post I’ve gathered a few that pop up on Facebook and other websites.

When I was in junior high school, so long ago that it wasn’t yet called middle school, my English teacher taught a unit on grammar. It was an excruciatingly boring class, and I usually focused more on her gravity-defying helmet of hair than on the lesson. Her lessons did somehow make their way into my brain, however, and although I do still sometimes make grammar mistakes, she gave me a wonderful background that serves me well to this day.

Commas are used to separate the elements of a sentence into manageable parts.  The basic rules, which I have shameslessly borrowed from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (go visit–it’s a fabulous site!), are as follows:

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. 

She wanted to cry, but she was too cold.


2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

While you were sleeping, I made breakfast. 

Well, I told you not to eat that!

Taking a deep breath, she carried the tureen into the dining room.

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.  (To help you decide whether an element is essential, ask yourself: (1) If you leave out the clause, phrase, or word, does the sentence still make sense? (2) Does the clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence? (3) If you move the element to a different position in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense? If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, then the element is nonessential and should be set off with commas.)

She had even believed, for a while, that a child would change her husband.

All too soon the food was gone, however, and they got to work.

It had been a mild summer, if unusually wet, Bess had said, and the garden was producing very well.

If you answer no, the element is essential.

4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses).

Theodora began to despair that she would ever find Longley Hall.



5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series. (It is here that you find the much maligned Oxford comma–the one after ‘butter’ below–but that should probably be the subject of another post.)

The three of them enjoyed a breakfast of bread, butter, and jam.





6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Never add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.  (Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal status in describing the noun; neither adjective is subordinate to the other. Ask yourself: (1) Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written in reverse order? (2) Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written with and between them? If yes, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma.)

He was a long, tall drink of water.

She wore a faded blue dress. 

7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

She seemed tired, even exhausted. 

You aren’t finished already, are you?

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion.

She ran down the street, sobbing hysterically. 

Sobbing hysterically, she ran down the street. 

9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

I have lived in Durham, England.

Where were you on September 11, 2001?

10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

“Jonathan,” Lady Julia said haughtily, “this is none of your concern.”

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion. Be careful with this rule, though, because using commas in the wrong place causes more confusion than not using them.

You can find more examples of correct and incorrect comma usage on these sites:

Purdue OWL
The UNC Writing Center
Grammar Monster


And, finally, there is the fabulous book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which makes learning to use commas properly ever so much more fun than my English teacher did.








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