NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
Commas are important in speech, as we’ve discussed before commas mark brief breaths but they also mark the end of the dialogue or when we’re addressing a person.
One of the most confusing comma moments in dialogue is when we close a piece of speech to attach a speech tag, such as they said. This is confusing because some people say it should always be a comma when there is a speech tag while others say it should sometimes be a full stop. The theory behind sometimes using a full stop is that our characters have reached the end of a sentence and then stop speaking. This would look something like:
‘Good morning.’ they said.
A speech tag should use a lower case letter instead of a capital letter because it acts like a continuation of a sentence rather than standing on its own. However, if we finished the speech with a full stop it looks a little odd having a speech tag with a lower case letter. We could try:
‘Good morning.’ They said.
This looks like it makes more sense with a full stop on the end of the speech and yet it doesn’t seem quite right because ‘they said’ isn’t really a sentence on its own. Personally I prefer to keep things simple and have all my dialogue that features speech tags end with a comma:
‘Good morning,’ they said.
I find this is not only easier to remember but looks a little better on the page particularly when we consider the difference between how people read stops and commas. A full stop is an abrupt stop and a comma is more of a slight pause. So our first example with two full stops would be two abrupt stops emphasising each piece with the same effect as short sentences. The version with a comma creates a slight pause to differentiate then finishes on ‘they said’ with a single stop and less emphasis because there’s no repetition.
Despite this it is important to note that if we finish speech with an ellipses (…) we don’t need a comma on the end, just the ellipses:
‘Good morning…’ they said.
The ellipses suggests speech trailing off with the possibility of continuation, but no continuation required. (See my previous article on ellipses for more information)
To add confusion there is also the effect of dialogue without a classic speech tag but with description attached which should use a full stop. The reason for this is because the description of an action or some exposition is separate from the speech. Such as:
‘Good morning.’ They waved.
Although the character might be waving because they said good morning the act of waving does not necessarily describe the act of speech. We could suggest that a wave might imply the speech is said in a friendly manner, however, this doesn’t have to be so. A person can easily say good morning and wave purely out of politeness, not necessarily because they’re trying to be friendly.
Once again there are instances where we may have description after speech that ends in a comma. Either the description is describing the way the speech is said:
‘Good morning,’ their tone was light and friendly.
Or we’re creating a moment in which to describe action while the words are being spoken but the sentence hasn’t ended:
‘Good morning,’ they waved, ‘how are you?’
‘Good morning,’ they said, waving, ‘how are you?’
You’ll notice that in the second instance I have added another comma between ‘said’ and ‘waving’. This goes back to my original article on commas where we discussed creating longer sentences with extra information after a comma. In this instance the wave is the extra information. The addition of the comma makes it clear that the character said while waving instead of ‘they said, “waving”’. Now, you might point out that they obviously didn’t say waving because there are no speech marks around it but it’s simply a case of creating added clarity.
Theoretically, grammar is all about increasing clarity when we writer, which doesn’t explain why the rules can be so confusing.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.