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Old 02-01-2009, 09:40 AM
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Default Speech Tags

Originally written by Winterbite

The Speech Tag FAQ

If there’s one thing I’ve seen nearly every new writer do, it’s use 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, says who’s presently speaking, and sometimes tells 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, “speaker attribution”.

This is what one looks like:

“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. Almost everyone uses identifiers--it's hard not to--and there are many different ways to bend them to your will. You can put them at the beginning of dialogue, in the middle of dialogue, and, most commonly, at the end of dialogue. You can add moods (he said angrily), define how something was said (she whispered), specify who the dialogue is aimed at (she said to Captain Jete), and further the cause of world peace.

Note: 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 other such replacements for "said" in your speech tags too often. A good ninety percent of your tags should probably be “said”. Some advocate using only that word, 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,” “replied,” and other such staples. Different ones 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.

Just remember: every single time you're following a piece of dialogue with anything that could be replaced with "he said" or "she said", there's going to be a comma at the end of that dialogue. Not a period.

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 tagging can be confusing business sometimes. People occasionally lock themselves into a 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 avoid writing non-speech tags with speech tags formatting.

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. Not a synonym of "said" 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 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 the audience who he is--indirectly, of course. In a dialogue between two people this enables you to keep your speakers straight without resorting to labeling them. It’s a commonly used tool, and most writers do it unconsciously at one time or another. A regular vocative expression 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, 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?”(Obviously Bellview; the paragraph break indicates a change in speaker.)

“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. If your characters have different accents or speaking mannerisms, even better. As long as their differences remain unique to them, people will always be able to tell who's speaking just by the way they're talking.)

“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, and here I'm going to share with you, as an added bonus, one of the more arcane ones...

The emdash-interruption! This one is a rare find in grammar books, but it's legit. Basically, you insert an action into the middle of a piece of dialogue... without using a speech tag! This one is wild. The best way to explain, really, is to show you: "And so, Captain Almond"--Trumpetpuffer brushed a piece of fur from his uniform--"we have sent your vile crew of nut pirates to Davy Jones' locker!"

That one's so fun to use, I sometimes go out of my way to fit it into sentences. "You don't normally find something in the middle of dialogue," Winterbite said, "unless it's a speech tag." But with this little trick, you get to shove anything you like into the middle of the sentence. Not too much, though, please... our memories might not be good enough to remember where the dialogue left off if you take unfair advantage of this amazing new ability.

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Last edited by Winterbite; 02-11-2010 at 07:11 PM..
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