If you’ve written fabulous dialogue, I’m ready to help you defend it against awkward punctuation, strange capital letters, and wonky paragraphing. Mere formatting errors will never get between your dialogue and your readers again.
Last week, we worked through how to paragraph dialogue, and you can click here to read that blog. This week we’ll work through the principles of capitalisation for dialogue and dialogue tags.
The first and most important principle is this: Always capitalise the first word of dialogue.
This holds no matter how long the dialogue is, and it holds no matter where the dialogue comes in the surrounding sentence or sentences.
He glanced down the table. “Pass the salt, please,” he said.
Even capitalise a single word of dialogue.
She screamed, “Run!”
Even if the dialogue comes at the end of a sentence of prose as if it were simply the continuation of that sentence, capitalise the first word.
After walking home from the shop, he dropped into his seat and said, “Wow, that was a long walk.”
Even if the dialogue is a fragment of a sentence—say, only two words—still capitalise the first word.
She called over her shoulder, “Found it.”
Always capitalise those first words of dialogue.
Before we head on, let’s take a quick moment here to define dialogue tags.
They are phrases that indicate who is speaking. The most common dialogue tags are he said and she said. There are then many variations of these, like: Sandy screamed, I replied, or we retorted, to name a few. All of these phrases are dialogue tags, and I’ll refer to them in the next section and later in the blog, too.
There is one situation where the first word of dialogue appears to reject the capitalisation principle:
“When you hide,” she whispered, “remember to be silent.”
Notice that “remember” is not capitalised. In this situation, “When” is the first word of dialogue, and the dialogue tag—she whispered—is merely an interruption in a single sentence of dialogue. Therefore, don’t capitalise the first word after the dialogue tag.
However, when a dialogue tag interrupts dialogue but a new sentence is begun after the dialogue tag, capitalise the first word of the new sentence as you would any other new sentence. For example:
“When you hide, remember to be silent,” she whispered. “They mustn’t hear you.”
Now we need to figure out how to capitalise dialogue tags.
While a dialogue tag is any phrase that indicates who is speaking, we need to acknowledge two categories of dialogue tags. First, there are dialogue tags that indicate a way of speaking. These are tags like “he said”, “she shouted”, “Tim whispered”, “Sally replied”, “they asked”, or “I mumbled”. Second, there are dialogue tags that perform exactly the same job but do not indicate a way of speaking. Instead, they indicate an associated action. These are tags like “he smiled”, “she laughed”, “I paused”, “Bruce sighed”, or “Grace nodded”.
Both the first and second categories of dialogue tags can function in the same way and can be used in the same place in a sentence.
“I’m going home tonight,” she whispered.
“I’m going home tonight.” She smiled.
Now, you’ve probably already noticed what I’m going to explain next. The first words of dialogue tags in the first category are not capitalised, whereas the first words of dialogue tags in the second category are capitalised. This difference can be thought of like this: Dialogue tags in the first category exist only to tell the reader how the dialogue was spoken. Therefore, they are contained in the same sentence as the dialogue. Dialogue tags in the second category indicate an associated, but nonetheless separate, action performed by the person speaking. Therefore, the second category of dialogue tags are treated as separate sentences from the dialogue and are given capital letters.
While this may seem like a principle that should be followed merely because it is a principle, there is an important and practical situation where following this principle (or not following it) could change the meaning of your sentence entirely.
There are dialogue tags which could theoretically belong to both categories. Take this one, for example: he cried. If this dialogue tag belonged to the first category, it would indicate a way of speaking. He cried would indicate a certain form of shout—a triumphal declaration in the first example below or a mournful confession in the second:
He dashed across the finish line. “I won!” he cried.
He looked at the picture. “I miss her,” he cried.
If this dialogue tag belonged to the second category, however, it would be an associated but separate action. He cried would not indicate the way he spoke, but rather that he performed the action of crying at the same time as speaking or immediately after—crying tears of joy in the first example or tears of sorrow in the second:
He dashed across the finish line. “I won!” He cried.
He looked at the picture. “I miss her.” He cried.
For “he cried” and other dialogue tags which could belong to either category, this principle of capitalisation is essential to communicating the correct information to the reader. If you want your dialogue tag to indicate how the dialogue is spoken, do not capitalise the first word of the dialogue tag. If you want your dialogue tag to indicate an associated action, do capitalise the first word.
There are two final points I must make to conclude this blog with clarity.
First, if you choose to interrupt dialogue in the middle of a sentence with a dialogue tag from the second category, don’t capitalise the first word of the dialogue tag. Avoiding the strange appearance of a capital letter in the middle of a sentence is more important in this situation than the nature of the dialogue tag.
“In the winter,” he smiled, “you can ski for miles around here.”
Second, if you choose to use a dialogue tag from the first category after a section of dialogue that ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark, do not capitalise the first word of the dialogue tag, even though you would normally capitalise the first word after those punctuation marks. (Note: Your word processor may auto-capitalise the first word of your dialogue tag when it follows a question mark or exclamation mark. My word processor does this all the time.)
“When will you get here?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” he retorted.
Well, that’s it from me. We’ve covered this week’s topic.
1. Always capitalise the first word of dialogue, no matter what.
2. Don’t capitalise the first word of a dialogue tag that indicates a way of speaking.
3. Capitalise the first word of a dialogue tag that indicates an associated action.
Now I hope you feel equipped to tackle capitalisation in dialogue and dialogue tags. If, however, you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment. All the best! I’ll see you next week with the final blog in this dialogue series—punctuation in dialogue.