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Commas And Dialogue


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Usually when I write a post about grammar, it’s pretty black and white. As confusing as grammar can be, the rules are generally straightforward, once you understand them. But we write fiction, and sometimes fiction makes it hard to follow rules*. So today, I am writing a post in which I have only an opinion. And maybe you will all have opinions too. Because I know I’m not the only one who can be obnoxiously opinionated when it comes to grammar.

So, if you’re writing a novel, the odds are pretty high that it contains dialogue. And sometimes, punctuation rules just do not mix well with dialogue. Some things seem to be commonly accepted as fine. Your character turns five sentences into one because they’re talking so fast, so you don’t use periods in between sentences until the character takes a breath. You probably also use more exclamation marks in dialogue than you do in the rest of the text. And maybe more ellipses, too.

But what about the more subtle things? I’m talking about statements like these: “No, thanks.” “Well, I don’t know.” “Yes, I will.” “I love you, Rover.” Those commas are grammatically correct, but what if that’s not how your character is saying it? What if they’re not pausing where that comma is? When I write dialogue, I think about this. And I leave out commas if I don’t think they fit. My beta readers don’t usually nitpick my punctuation, but occasionally I peruse the SYW section of Absolute Write, and I’ve seen things like this corrected by critiquers there.

Maybe this is something so small, no one else ever thinks about it, but I like the authenticity it brings to dialogue. Sometimes you aren’t saying “I love you, Rover.” Sometimes you are saying, “I love you Rover.” It just reads differently.

What do you guys think? Do you punctuate your dialogue differently, or the same as the rest of the narrative?

*Grammar is important, though. In my opinion, it’s in every writer’s best interest to pay attention to your grammar, just like you would to any other aspect of the craft. 

Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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19 comments:

  1. I use entirely too many commas in dialogue, but it is a closer representation of how I talk, the pauses and such. I always seem to find a way to justify my overuse of commas :)

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  2. I'm the opposite. I hardly put enough comas in and then I get in trouble for it. Punctuation is not my forte. Come on Grampa, let's eat.

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  3. I try to be as grammatically correct with my dialogue. Maybe it's the editor in me.

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  4. I punctuate my dialogue exactly the same as the rest of the text. If the dialogue feel odd with the correct punctuation, then I typically discover that it is stilted to being with. Take the example you provided: I love you, Rover. The name makes the sentence feel so contrived--better to do without, and then there is no issue around the comma. Same with filler words like "well" and repetitions like in "yes, I will".

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  5. I always wonder about this, too- do the same rules apply to dialogue as well? Right now I'm at a bit of a medium, so I suppose I'll keep it that way :)

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  6. Absolutely true. Dialogue is a whole different beast. When in doubt, I tend to eliminate my commas altogether.

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  7. I use fewer and occasionally more commas in dialogue. I've found them a useful tool for indicating speech cadence.

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  8. Commas are really useful for marking flow in dialogue. But they're not reliable. I often offset certain things in commas to make them an afterthought, like, "Let's go, slowly." That has a different feel to it than "Let's go slowly." But readers don't always pick up on that.

    Readers are accustomed to commas doing the things they usually do, which is to give us some idea about the sense of the sentence. That's why "I love you Rover" is somewhat problematic. The comma between you and Rover marks Rover out as the person (dog?) being addressed. Without the comma, that's no longer obvious, and it looks like a mistake.

    You wouldn't leave it out in "I love him, Rover," right? It should have the same cadence. Your mental punctuation guide is just being fooled because the you and the Rover have the same referent.

    And that's what this linguist says. :D

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  9. I think there are ways to write the sentence differently to convey the speech. Like "I love you, Rover." You could write "I love you so freaking much, Rover!" and I think it works better to convey an attitude. Still, I think the comma is necessary where it's grammatically correct.

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  10. I'm on team anti-comma. I'll even go one further and say that writing in first person and trying to make the voice consistent is a good excuse to eschew commas outside of dialogue too. If they don't add voice or clarity, I cut them, rules be damned.

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  11. I punctuate correctly, in dialogue and in prose, and incorrect punctuation really bugs me. If you're going to play with it, use dialect and be creative, really go for it. If they're speaking fast because they're nervous, use "Ohthanksseeyoulater," instead of just "Oh thanks see you later." The first one is intentional and conveys the information well, and it's funny. The second one just looks like you don't know what commas are.

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  12. interesting post! in general, I punctuate correctly in dialogue, but I also include a whole lot more dashes for interjections, and ellipses for pauses/trailing off, which I never use in my actual prose.

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  13. (I do use dashes in my prose. just not ellipses. maybe once or twice.)

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  14. It's generally different, written to reflect the tone of the character.

    I also abuse the ellipses.

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  15. My general view is that the purpose of punctuation is to help the reader understand what you are saying, and the way you are saying it. When it comes to dialog, this means that punctuation serves to help the reader understand what *that character* is saying, and the way he/she is saying it. Hence, if the character says, "Let's eat Rover!" the missing comma may be a comedic moment, or it may be lunchtime at the zombie house. :)

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  16. I try to keep the dialogue as correct as I can without it being stilted. If I send my books out to 5 beta readers, sure enough, one will try to correct the dialogue grammar.

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  17. I was considering similar ideas the other day. I know it's correct to include that comma, but in my head it doesn't suit how my character says it.
    But what should I do? Should I go ahead and follow the dictated standards, or do I do it in a way I think is more natural and better suited?
    It's a hard question, I think I try and follow convention to be on the safe side.

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  18. I'm kind of fond of leaving out quotations marks entirely. The problem is you have to use a lot more dialogue tags and that increases your word count. But I like how elegant and spare it looks.

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Item Reviewed: Commas And Dialogue Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward