“What do You Mean?” she asked.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately as I read material for my critique group, in my capacity as a submissions reader for eFiction Noir and eFiction Sci-Fi magazines, and in reading books to review. Well, it’s disturbing to me, the Punctuation Queen. Most likely, the rest of you don’t particularly care–but you should, if not for the reason that, perhaps, one day I’ll be reading your work. [Insert evil laugh here.]

No, seriously, I’m finding that a surprising number of people don’t know how to punctuate dialogue. Here are a few examples of the incorrect punctuation; the sentences themselves I made up:

“What do you mean,” she asked with a frown?

“What do you mean?,” she asked, with a frown.

“What do you mean?” she asked? With a frown.

“What do you mean?” asked, Jane, frowning?

“I know what you mean” said, Jane.

“I know what you mean.” said Jane.

I hope you see where each of the above needs to be corrected. If not, here’s how you punctuate a question and a statement in dialogue (in most instances):

“What do you mean?” she asked, with a frown.

“That’s what I meant,” she said, with a smile.

Or a variation:

With a frown, she asked, “What do you mean?”

With a smile, she said, “That’s what I meant.”

The latter correction also employs a little variety in your dialogue structure. You can get a little tired of a constant string of “she said” “he said” and so on. Flipping the tag to the beginning is a good way to break up a chunk of dialogue.

“What’s a tag?” you ask.

A dialogue tag is what you put after the line of dialogue: “said” or “asked” plus the noun or pronoun–like a mini-sentence. And, trust me, “said” or “asked” are your dialogue tag friends. Use them well and frequently, but don’t substitute things that aren’t dialogue tags.

“What do you mean?” he frowned.

Exactly that–“frowned” is not a dialogue tag. You say words, you ask words, but you don’t frown words. You may say or ask as you frown, but some verbs just aren’t dialogue tags. And if you limit yourself to the simple tags of “said” or “asked,” that frees you up to do some showing and not telling.

For example, you could write: “You don’t love me,” she pouted.

Any of us who have children or grandchildren know what a pout looks like, but why not “show” us the pout by describing it. Is it joking, how sincere is it, it is coy?

Her lower lip protruded as she frowned and blinked away non-existent tears. “You don’t love me,” she said.

See how much more we learned about the dynamic between the two speakers with a description of the pout?

Anyway, I digressed a bit from punctuating dialogue, but, well, these things needed to be said. Because most of my previous experience was as an editor, I often get bogged down in the bad or lack of punctuation. That means the story drops a few notches in quality for me.

Now, if I see one comma out-of-place, I won’t quibble, but when bad punctuation, especially for something as fundamental to writing as dialogue, is consistent, that tells me the writer doesn’t really care about his or her work, that the concept of “getting published fast” has won out over good writing.

What’s a good punctuation reference? The Chicago Manual of Style covers just about everything you need for writing. If you’re an AP Manual fan, switch. The AP Manual is for magazine or newspaper writing, where the punctuation, in particular, is different. The CMS is what most editors of literary magazines prefer. Otherwise, a decent college grammar handbook will do. Many writers I know like Garner’s Modern American Usage, which may be more up-to-date than an old college handbook. Usage and preferred punctuation do change, after all.

Pull out something you’ve been working on, and take a look at your dialogue. Is it punctuated correctly? Are your dialogue tags really tags? Are there opportunities to show more and tell less?

10 thoughts on ““What do You Mean?” she asked.

  1. “What do you mean?” she asked, with a frown.
    “That’s what I meant,” she said, with a smile.

    I wouldn’t comma these. Short phrases like this read fine without. It’s not wrong, but in my view it’s an edge case.

    • You’re right, but I was making a point and trying to do so in a few words. I did say in most instances. That, and my punctuation education is about 50 years old! 😉

  2. I won’t lie when I say that I’ve always had trouble punctuating dialog. I think the combination of commas, apostrophes, periods and parentheses is what trips me up. I’m incredibly grateful that you posted this, I’ve got some editing to do to a couple past pages on my blog. 😉

I live for your constructive comments.

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