I edit manuscripts for other authors as part of my freelance business. And while I focus more on the big picture stuff, there are also times when little things like punctuation just annoy me to tears. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling do matter. You should never, ever submit a manuscript with errors of this kind that can be easily fixed.
By now, you’ve probably seen the popular meme that shows two versions of the same sentence:
Let’s eat Grandma!
Let’s eat, Grandma!
One little comma changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. In the first, we’re going to actually eat Grandma. Now this might be what you mean if you are writing about the Donner Party or a horror story involving cannibalism. But if you mean to be telling Grandma you are ready to eat, you better have a comma.
There are also very important reason to use commas correctly to separate items in a series. Such as: I ate grapes, mangoes, and bacon. If you leave off the final comma, it connects mangoes and bacon–which might be what you meant. Mangoes wrapped in bacon. Hmmmm. But if you meant each item separately, then you need the comma.
Most people can manage those commas pretty well. It gets tricky when you start using them in dialogue.
Simple dialogue doesn’t seem to trouble most people. Something like: “I want to go to the grocery store,” said Mom. That’s pretty normal.
But what if your dialogue is more obtuse and complicated? I’ve had clients do any of the following:
“I don’t know,” He said, “can you tell me the answer?”
“Please don’t go,” he scratched his lip.
“Whatever,” she asked… “do you mean?”
And much, much worse. I’ll give you a minute to fix the mistakes in the above sentences and see how you do. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, let’s check our work. The first sentence should read:
“I don’t know,” he said. “Can you tell me the answer?”
If you are using a comma before the dialogue tag, you don’t capitalize “he.” You do put a period after “said.” And you cap the next bit of dialogue.
“Please don’t go.” He scratched his lip.
“Please, don’t go.” He scratched his lip.
I think the comma after “please” is optional, depending on the inflection you want. The first way, without the comma, is more urgent. The second way is more pleading.
The most important part of the fix is to put a period after “go.” Why? Because the comma between what is said and the dialogue tag is meant to allow for the tag to indicate who and how it is being said. But we have an action following this dialogue that is completely a separate thing from what is being said. Therefore, you put a period. “He scratched his lip” is not a dialogue tag. It is an action unto itself.
People have been known to get into screaming matches over this kind of thing. Please don’t do that. But do please remember that a dialogue tag has to do with the statement or question said. Therefore, the dialogue tag must be words like:
A frequent mistake of beginning writers, and something that will scream to an editor that you are a beginner, is using words that cannot possibly describe how something is being said as if they are dialogue tags.
For example, “I have to kill you now,” he held up his gun. Holding up the gun is an action, but it does not describe how the words are spoken. I don’t even like things like “he threatened” in this case. Mostly because the words are already threatening, so it’s redundant to say that.
Often, writers will have a character laugh their line. Have you ever tried laughing words? It can’t be done. Yes, you can laugh while you’re speaking, but you’re still speaking. The laughter is separate from the words. I’ve seen dialogue where a character is snorting his lines, sneezing them, hiccuping them. None of these is speech.
The easiest way to fix this is to make the dialogue and the action two separate sentences: “I have to kill you now.” He held up the gun.
Our last test sample was this: ”Whatever,” she asked… “do you mean?”
This isn’t wrong, per se, but it is more complicated than necessary. It would flow more smoothly like this:
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked.
Whenever possible, simple is better. The main goal in writing dialogue is for the tags to disappear from consciousness. The less obtrusive they are, they better.
However, perhaps the author is trying to convey a pause, a hesitation on the speaker’s part. Then this would work:
“Whatever. . .” She paused. “Whatever do you mean?”
(Side note: Ellipses are typed with spaces between the periods. Just FYI.)
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of comma usage. There are whole books on this topic. My favorite book with the clearest examples of correct usage is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It’s a classic.
If you can accomplish correct usage in your punctuation, your copyeditor will love you.