Grammar Week: Speech Tags

Ah, speech tags. The lovely bit of any story that tells you who’s talking at any point in time. Easy peasy, right?

No. Apparently not.

Here’s the thing about speech tags. They’re supposed to blend into the background. If you use them right, a reader hardly notices them, aside from gaining the necessary information as to who’s talking.

Let’s talk punctuation. He said, “There’s always a comma between the speech tag and the actual quotation.” This is true in past or present tense. You see, the speech tag is the action, and the quote is an extension. They are not a single thought and should not be presented as such.

Periods and commas always go in the quotation marks. Quotes within quotes use single quotation marks as opposed to double. She says, “Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘never go up against a landsquid when death is on the line’?”

(Landsquid make liberal use of ceiling turtles in conflicts.)

Now, appropriate speech tags. Many people will tell you not to stray much beyond said, asked, or replied. These blend into the action, allowing you to identify the speaker, but don’t distract the reader from what’s happening.

This can be hard for beginning writers to stomach. You’re a writer, after all! You must be creative.

But look at this example: He swallows, “Are you sure?”

Now try to swallow and talk at the same time. I dare you.

Some people get truly ridiculous with the actions they allow to be speech tags, but you will distract your reader if your speech tag is not physically possible. And you never, ever want your reader distracted by your prose.

With the above, you can swallow and then speak, and that’s okay. Same with laughing, smiling, crying, etc. Here is where punctuation is key. He swallows. “Are you sure?” Two separate actions.

The second thing people like to do is add adverbs onto their speech tags. He said loudly. She asked slowly. These are okay in moderation, but your writing will be stronger if you can move that adverb from a telling into a showing role in either your dialogue or action.

For example: “I’ll always be alone,” she said, staring at her hands. See how the dialogue and action takes away the need for a ‘sadly’?

Any questions on how speech tags work? Anything to note?

4 responses to this post.

  1. Questions – should it be

    “Are you ready?” he asked.
    “Are you ready,” he asked.

    Or something else entirely?


  2. […] speech tags are good, right? Well, kind of. Here’s an older post about general speech tag usage, but generally you should be conservative with what […]


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