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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