Things I’ve Learned Since Grade School — Dialog Commas

I’ve always had an unrea­son­ably inti­mate, if some­what stormy, rela­tion­ship with punctuation.

On one hand I want punc­tu­a­tion to make sense — to be use­ful, pre­dictable, and con­sis­tently applic­a­ble. On the other hand I want to be able to make use of it for my own ends — to fudge, push, pull, invert, and sub­vert its pre­scribed and pro­scribed uses. To make my par­tic­u­lar mean­ings just a lit­tle clearer. I want to instruct my reader in how to breathe my prose. In how to inhale its mean­ing and to exhale its sense.

I start mess­ing around with punc­tu­a­tion right from the begin­ning, my usual drafts are hashes of frag­ments, rep­e­ti­tions, par­en­thet­i­cals, frag­ments, whizzes, bangs, splits, splotches, hen scratches and fly­specks. Type some words, throw down a comma to indi­cate a break in thought, add a dash — a minor detour if you will. Type some more words, drop in another comma for a slight turn to the left, use a period to mark the end of the whole thought and it’s trail­ing lit­tle brothers.

Then a new para­graph, or maybe an extra blank line if I’m really going to jump the hur­dle and land in some entirely other field. I love ellipses, en dashes, em dashes, paren­the­ses; all of the brack­ets — angle, curly, and square. Each lit­tle glyph adding, to my eye, a slightly dif­fer fla­vor of pause or link­age. They cre­ate con­nec­tions or dis­con­nec­tions between the lit­tle thoughts that flow and stum­ble out of my fingers.

Even­tu­ally I make a proper first draft out of my mess. Using scis­sors, tape, and sev­eral col­ors of high­lighter I take all of the frag­ments and push them to and fro and make them stand in, if not straight lines, at least con­vivial groups. Mar­shal them and march them out on to the field. Much of my crazy, lazy punc­tu­a­tion dis­ap­pears in this process. Not all of it. And some mis­takes are made.

A recent round of edit­ing led to ques­tions about how, exactly, to punc­tu­ate dia­log. Because I had writ­ten a whole story using my usual, utterly con­sis­tent form of punc­tu­a­tion. Which it turns out is wrong about half the time. Grade school failed me in so many ways.

Worse yet, my wrong­ness makes my favorite edi­tor twitchy because it involves commas.

Now I like com­mas as much as the next writer. In fact I like them a lit­tle too much. I’ve been known to sprin­kle them about in my writ­ing like jim­mies on an ice cream cone. With a free hand. But in dia­log? I have a prob­lem with them. I can never get them in the right place when it comes to the dia­log tags. And now, after being asked specif­i­cally to go look the damned things up, I know why. It’s because the rules make no sense.

To wit: this is the sim­plest, cor­rect punc­tu­a­tion of dia­log with attributions.

Go away,” said Tom.
“Go away!” said Tom.
“Go away?” said Tom.

That comma in the first exam­ple is the source of my anxiety:

Go away,” said Tom.

Why pray tell does the sim­ple declar­a­tive sen­tence lose it’s sim­ple declar­a­tive punc­tu­a­tion (the period) and get sad­dled with the breathy lit­tle we’re-not-done-here-yet comma? That comma leads me to expect that Tom is going to have more to say once we get done iden­ti­fy­ing him. That what’s com­ing up is more like:

Go away,” said Tom, “I’m not fin­ished wrap­ping your birth­day present.”

Mean­while, the excla­ma­tion and the ques­tion get the full dig­nity of their true it’s-all-over punc­tu­a­tion marks. But there’s no comma to set off the clause. Why? If there needs to be some sort of comma to set off the speaker’s words as a clause in the first exam­ple there should be a comma in the sec­ond and third exam­ples. Why don’t we have:

Go away!,” said Tom.

Or bet­ter yet…
“Go away!”, said Tom.

(Okay so we put the comma insides the quote because we always vio­late the order-of-operations and mis-nest our punc­tu­a­tion. We’re Amer­i­cans. And we’re lousy pro­gram­mers. That part I can usu­ally remember.)

But still, why?
“Go away,” said Tom.

It com­pletely baf­fles my sense of how punc­tu­a­tion should oper­ate. It’s taken me almost 50 years to finally get this ludi­crously illog­i­cal rule straight in my head.

But now that it’s lodged up there, I promise that I will do my best when re-working my dia­log to forgo the hum­ble period and to get all the com­mas lined up on the right sides of the quotes. Because mis­placed com­mas make my favorite edi­tor twitch and he has enough twitches already.

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