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Old 12-04-2008, 06:21 PM
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Default The Speech Tag FAQ

The Speech Tag FAQ

If there’s one thing I’ve seen nearly every new writer do, it’s write their speech tags in creative, but very wrong ways. I know I had a problem with them when I began. So, to spare both you and your editors a lot of pain, here’s a list of the most commonly made mistakes regarding the tags! First, a definition of these odd things.

A speech tag is something that labels a bit of dialogue, saying who’s presently speaking, and sometimes how they’re speaking. Them fancy-talkin’ types like to call it an identifier. It also goes by the names of “dialogue tag”, “tag line”, and if you wanna be real high class, “attribution”.

For example:

“Sometimes squirrels just can’t be allowed to roam the high seas,” Captain Jete said.

That bit in red is a speech tag. Basic “he said/she said” construction. Everybody uses them, and there are many different ways to bend them to your will. You can put them in the beginning of dialogue, in the middle of dialogue, and, most commonly, at the end. You can add moods (he said angrily), actions (she whispered), specify who the dialogue is aimed at
(she said to Captain Jete), and really have a lot of fun with them.

There’s a debate raging about whether to use anything but “said” in your speech tags. Common wisdom is that you don’t want to use things like “snapped”, “barked”, “whispered”, “murmured”, and things like that in your speech tags too often. At least a good ninety percent of your tags should be “said”. Some advocate using only said, as it’s basically invisible to the reader. The choice is yours, but always keep in mind that most of your speech tags should be simple “said,” “asked,” or “replied.” They can add colour to your dialogue and provoke images in the reader’s mind, but using too many fancy tags looks ridiculous after a little while.

For the sake of clarity—and to keep this article shorter than your average encyclopedia—we won’t go into much more detail. Now that you know what a speech tag is, we’ll delve right into the most commonly made mistakes.

Using a Period Instead of a Comma

“I hear there’s some interesting news today.” the naval cabinet member said.

Simple one. Just replace the period with a comma, and you’re good to go. Anything but an exclamatory or interrogatory sentence will have a comma just inside the last quote.

“I hear there’s some interesting news today,” the naval cabinet member said.

Putting the Comma Outside the Quotes

“There’s been a marked increase in squirrel piracy over the last several months”, the admiral said.

Minor, quite easy to fix. Just place the comma back where it belongs, inside those quotes!

“There’s been a marked increase in squirrel piracy over the last several months,” the admiral said.

Capitalizing the Speech Tag

“Whole convoys have been sent to the bottom of the sea by the fluffy-tailed creatures,” A naval officer said.
The only things you capitalize when beginning a speech tag are proper nouns. Bob, Captain Hornblower, Denmark, IBM…you get the picture. Articles, plain ol’ ordinary nouns, pronouns, et cetera, are left in lowercase. Take a look at the corrected sentence:

“Whole convoys have been sent to the bottom of the sea by the fluffy-tailed creatures,” a naval officer said.

Capitalizing After A Question Mark or Exclamation Point

“What can we do to stop these marauding rodents?” The grizzled old captain asked.

The problem here is that capital “The” that I’ve underlined. Just as you don’t capitalize anything but proper nouns after commas that introduce the speech tag, you don’t capitalize anything but proper nouns after question marks or exclamation points when introducing a speech tag. Observe:

“What can we do to stop these marauding rodents?” the grizzled old captain asked.

Not Using Speech Tags
Speech tags can be confusing business sometimes, and people occasionally lock themselves into the ol’ speech tag pattern, and put speech tag formatting on things that appear around dialogue, but aren’t speech tags. Yes, that was me seeing how many times I could say “speech tag” in one sentence. Here’s how you write the bits that aren’t speech tags.

Commas and Capitals
Here’s a sentence that doesn’t use speech tags, but has a bit of text at the end that gives a little information about the speaker.

“I have a plan,” a young officer stepped forward.

Here we are, covering two errors. The writer is treating that last bit, beginning with “a”, as a speech tag. It’s not.

Remember, a speech tag is something that labels dialogue. An identifier. It tells you who is speaking. The common speech tag uses a verb, which is “said”, or some synonym of that. The verb in this sentence would be “stepped”. That’s an impossible speech tag. This means that we are not working with a speech tag here, and have to treat it differently. In these situations, we use a period instead of a comma inside the quotes (Unless the sentence is exclamatory or interrogatory) and capitalize the beginning of the tag, whether it’s a proper noun or not. Like this:

“I have a plan.” A young officer stepped forward.


These are handy little things that sometimes help you get away without any identifier whatsoever, because it’ll already be in the dialogue. What it does is have the character who’s currently speaking tell who is being addressed. In a dialogue between two people this enables you to keep your speakers straight. It’s a commonly used tool, and most writers do it unconsciously at one time or another. A regular vocative expression, with a speech tag, looks like this:

“What is your plan, First Lieutenant Trumpetpuffer?” the admiral asked.

The vocative is underlined. It defines who’s being spoken to. Now, here’s an example of how it works in a continuous dialogue. The admiral takes Trumpetpuffer aside and speaks with him privately…

“Explain, Trumpetpuffer.” (It’s clear that the admiral is speaking right off, because, unless Trumpetpuffer is talking to himself, there’s only one person that could be addressing him)

“It’s this way, Admiral Bellview. We take four good merchant frigates, loaded with nuts, on a run through the Sarcastic Sea, where the squirrels' piracy has been worst.” (Remember, there are only two people in this conversation. So in any given piece of dialogue, either Trumpetpuffer or Bellview will be speaking. Obviously, it’s Trumpetpuffer here.)

“Nuts, you say?”

“Squirrels have a penchant for them, sir.”(You don’t always have to use names. Anything that identifies one person specifically can be used. “Husband mine” in a husband-wife dialogue, “Officer” in a civilian-police dialogue, etc.)

“Continue, Trumpetpuffer.”

You don’t need to use a vocative in every sentence, of course. A paragraph break and a new set of quotes are sufficient for most dialogues, but when things get long a reader will sometimes be confused as to who’s speaking. Most of the time a speech tag will break up the flow of words, so adding a vocative can be a clever way to tell the reader who’s speaking without busting into the conversation.

Speech tags can get confusing because there are so many ways to experiment. Play around with them! Once you’ve mastered the basics, there’ll be no stopping you. Reading a few books and taking a look at their speech tags is a good way to pick up new techniques.

Now go get a piece of dialogue going!

"Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools speak because they have to say something." - Plato

Last edited by Winterbite; 12-07-2008 at 06:14 PM.. Reason: Update
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