Intrusions: ems or parens?

I have an inordinate fondness for–some might say obsession with–intrusions.

Not physical ones. I don’t get into breaking down doors or smashing windows. I’m not talking B&E here. I mean written ones, like the one in the first sentence in this post.  That clause in the parentheses is an intrusion. Why did I choose em dashes over parentheses?

To me, it feels more connected to the sentence it’s intruding on than it might if I worded it differently, so I set it off with ems. There’s a sense of “setting aside,” but not as far to the side as it could be. I can’t quantify it, I’m sorry to admit. It’s a sensibility, one of those things one develops over time, with experience. Another editor might feel the opposite of this, and prefer to use ems for things that “feel” like larger departures and parens for ones that “feel” less so.

But I digress. The main issue here turns out to be mechanics. Specifically, commas.

If your digression/intrusion requires a comma afterward, you’ll have to use parentheses. It’s simply Not Done, putting a comma after an em dash when it’s signifying an intrusive thought.

She picked up the soda (ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm), the croissant (also an hour old, and now rather cold), and her phone, and left the diner.

If she was only picking up one thing, you could use ems:

She picked up the soda–ordered an hour or so before, and now quite warm–and left the diner.

NB: However, you can put a comma after an em when the dash signifies cut-off speech, like this:

“Didn’t even leave a tip. What a cheap bi–,” he muttered, censoring himself before anyone could overhear.

That comma is not only acceptable, it’s required. Declarative statement within quotes: put a comma before the closing quote if you’re using a dialogue tag.

But, as usual, I digress. (A rather necessary digression, because I know if I don’t cover that someone out there will bring it up and claim I omitted it even though it’s not exactly on-topic for intrusions.)

(Notice how the period goes inside the closing paren.)

(There. It happened again.)

So, back to the topic. Intrusions are part and parcel of fiction writing, in my experience, but are very rare elsewhere. If you’re writing fiction, whether there’s dialogue or not, you’ll likely find a use for an intrusion. (If you hate them, that’s fine. I’m not prone to inserting them where they were absent, but I’m all about making sure the ones you use are correctly punctuated.) If your intrusion requires a comma afterward, it needs to be set aside with parentheses. If no comma is needed, you can use em dashes.

I’ll leave the question of which feels more “set aside” for you to contemplate. Sensibilities vary.

All right, you, break it up: Dialogue and reactions

I haven’t found anything in any of my usage or grammar texts about this particular topic. I suspect it’s because the issue is one more of craft or art than of science (inasmuch as one can compare grammar to a science; one sure as hell can’t do that with usage, I know that for a fact).

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen paragraphs containing dialogue and reactions, and while that’s not illegal, the way it was written was less than clear. Person A says something, person B reacts to it in the same graf, and then A says something again. Why? Is it because the writer was taught that grafs have to be N sentences long? (N is often 10, for some reason entirely unknown to me. I had a professor, a Kipling scholar, who insisted that if we couldn’t write 10 sentences about a topic sentence, we needed a different topic sentence.) Not that any of these grafs came close to that, but it’s about all I can think of to explain the phenomenon. Continue reading “All right, you, break it up: Dialogue and reactions”

Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 3, Interrupted Dialogue

“Whaddaya mean, interrupted? I’m talkin’ like I al—” Nick jumped as a heavy book flew off the shelf behind him and landed at his feet with a thud.

Forgive me, but it’s Halloween. I had to do something seasonal.

As you can see in that first paragraph, there’s an example of a common type of interrupted dialogue: an intrusion of an action into someone’s speech.

You need to provide some kind of ending punctuation to the speech if the interruption occurs in the middle of a word. Here I’ve used an em dash. There’s not much choice, honestly. I can’t use a period, because the sentence isn’t finished. He’s not questioning, so I can’t use a question mark. It’s not an exclamation, either. Nick is cut off in the middle of the word “always” by what I suspect is poltergeist activity (or perhaps a mischievous cat with back-shelf access and strong muscles). I’ll wager you think you need to use a hyphen, but a case like this one uses an em dash.

When an action intrudes into dialogue this way, an em dash signals “Hey! Watch this!” (I’ll even give you chapter and verse. Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition, 6.86.) It goes where all terminal punctuation for speech goes: inside the closing quotes. There is no space on either side of it per Chicago style. (AP is different, but if you’re writing anything other than news copy, you probably aren’t using AP anyway.)

There could be a need for two em dashes, if the action is in the middle of one person’s speech. Then it looks like this:

“So you don’t believe in poltergeists, Nick? Funny, I’d figured you for one of those”—Phoebe waggled her fingers at him like a cartoon witch casting a spell—“paranormal fanboys.”

Sure, you could put that beat after the speech, but then you lose the effect of her waggling her fingers at him while she’s talking. Consider where the beat needs to go, and write accordingly. Play around with it if you need to. No one will ever know how many iterations you went through (unless you whine about it publicly on social media).

Look at that example. It’s a little different from Nick’s interrupted speech, isn’t it? Phoebe finishes a word before that beat shows up, so there’s no need for an em dash before the closing quotation marks of her first speech. Instead, place an em dash after the closing quotation marks and before the beat, and then place another after the beat and before the next opening quotation marks. Those em dashes punctuate the beat, not the speech. The first word of the second direct speech (paranormal) is not capitalized; there’s no reason for it to be. It’s the next word in her sentence. If that beat hadn’t intruded you wouldn’t capitalize it, so there’s no reason to do so now. The normal rules apply, even when there’s an intruding beat.

What about when someone trails off and doesn’t finish their speech? That’s when you want suspension points or ellipses. Here’s how they work:

Nick glowered at her. “I’m not a fanboy. I’ve never been a fanboy. Just because I have a healthy . . .” His annoyance flagged as his gaze moved, drawn to the flickering lamp in the opposite corner of the room. “Was that lit before? I don’t think that was lit before. I could swear that when we came in . . .” He swallowed hard as the lampshade rotated slowly, clockwise.

As usual, the suspension points go inside the closing quotes. They’re punctuating the speech.

She snickered and walked over to the side table, taking the fringed lower edge of the lampshade between thumb and forefinger to stop it. “You’re a nervous Nelly now, aren’t—OH MY GOD!”

Pheobe had been so sure of herself until . . . something happened. I’ll let you decide what it was. That’s a different kind of interrupted speech, which begins with one tone or subject and suddenly switches to something entirely different. As usual, use an em dash to indicate the change.

Those are the main types of interrupted dialogue, the ones you’re most likely to encounter while reading or to use in your writing. The main things to remember are:

  • Use an em dash if the speaker stops mid-word, in the same way as you’d use a hyphen. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash if the speaker’s able to complete a word, but someone or something stops them before they finish their thought. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash to indicate a sharp change in tone or subject within speech.
  • Use em dashes to punctuate the intruding beat. Place them outside the quotation marks and don’t put spaces on either side of them.
  • Use suspension points to indicate faltering or trailing speech. Put them inside the closing quotation marks. (You can use spaced periods as I did, or you can use the single three-dot glyph your word-processing software provides. If you use the glyph, put a space before and after it.)

Paragraph-Spanning Speech

This doesn’t merit a post of its own, so I’ll include it here. When a single speaker’s speech continues over two or more paragraphs, you don’t put closing quotation marks at the end of each. You put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each, and closing quotes at the end of the entire speech. It looks rather like this:

“What did you expect? We come to the town’s most famous haunted house on Halloween, and you thought what? That nothing would happen?” Pheobe was more than a little irritated. She paced around the coffee table in the middle of the parlor like a panther in a pit trap. “And now that something has happened, you want to—I don’t know, call the cops? I’m really disappointed in you, Nick. I thought you had cojones or something.

            “All right, then. You want to leave, we’ll leave.” She strode across the room and grabbed the door latch. It didn’t budge. Rattling it harder, she glanced back to Nick, who was still staring at the lampshade. “HEY! I said you want to leave, we’ll leave. Help me get this door open.”

Will they get the door open? Will Nick snap out of his fugue? And what about Naomi?

I hope these three posts have helped answer the most common questions about punctuating dialogue. Don’t hesitate to contact me either via email ( or G+ if there’s something I didn’t discuss that you want to know. I’m always happy to explain and educate.


Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 2, Tags and Beats

A tag can comprise as few as two words. He said is a tag. So is she screamed. So is they chorused.

Now, some folks will tell you to never, EVER use any word other than said as a tag. They’re entitled to their opinion, of course. I happen not to share it. A well-placed he muttered, especially in books aimed at younger readers, says far more than he said. My opinion is that tags work better for less-practiced readers, and that “tagless” dialogue is a method better used with adult audiences who are (one hopes) more sophisticated, more used to extracting information from the dialogue itself. A middle-grade reader might be able to do that, sure. But one can’t count on all middle-graders to be that advanced. The reverse is also true: Not all adult readers are well versed in gleaning information from surrounding text, and indeed might prefer to be explicitly told how someone is saying something.

There are no rules, and the guidelines are awfully flexible. You’ll need to feel your way through and find your own best answers.

What follows here, then, is mostly my personal philosophy about tags and beats. Of course there are a few guidelines that aren’t mine, such as “don’t use a tag after every line of dialogue.” That’s what some would call common sense. Cluttering up the page with he said and she replied (OH MY GOD SHE DIDN’T USE SAID! Shaddup, you) is stealing thunder from your dialogue and insulting to the reader. You don’t need a beat after every line, either. Use them when you need them. Use them instead of tags to help the reader see and hear your characters. Let’s explore this a bit.

The Tag

“Hello, Charlie,” she said.

There. That’s a line of dialogue with a tag. (Tags are also called “attributions.” They attribute dialogue to a specific speaker.) As I discussed yesterday, the dialogue is enclosed in double quotation marks, and there’s a comma before the closing quote. Her statement would normally end with a period, but it’s dialogue so it ends with a comma; the period at the end, after said, is the terminal punctuation for the entire sentence.

If you’re really good at dialogue, you might be able to write an entire section (not necessarily a chapter, but a good-sized chunk of text) without using a single tag or beat. I’ve seen it done. Not often, mind you, but I’ve seen it. That comes with practice and not a little talent. I don’t recommend it for beginners.

Now consider this:

“Hello, Charlie,” she whispered.

That’s different from said. I can hear the difference in the words because the tag indicates to me that she’s whispering, not merely speaking. Beats can do this, too, but I don’t want to discuss those just yet. There’s more you need to know about tags.

Tags can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of dialogue. So far I’ve shown them at the end.

She said, “Hello, Charlie.”

Place a comma after the verb in the attribution, and enclose the dialogue in quotes like normal using appropriate terminal punctuation placed inside the closing quotation marks.

“What I want to know,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “is how you got out without help.”

There it’s in the middle, interrupting the direct speech. The first clause is punctuated with a comma, because there’s more coming after the attribution. The attribution itself is punctuated with a comma (after cup in this case) because there’s more speech coming; the sentence isn’t done, yet. In this example she’s making a statement, so the terminal punctuation is a period before the closing quotation marks.

“But Karen, why isn’t it a question mark? She’s asking a question, right?” Wrong.

She says she wants to know how he got out. She’s stating that. She’s not asking. If she were asking, she might say the following (take note of the change in punctuation):

“So tell me, Charlie,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “how did you get out without help?”

Now she’s asking a question. The attribution still interrupts her speech, so the first part ends with a comma (after “Charlie”), and we still use a comma after cup because there’s more speech coming, but now the sentence ends with a question mark just as it would if it wasn’t speech. It’s a question. Put a question mark before the closing quotation marks.

There are other ways of punctuating interrupted speech, but I’m saving those for the next part of this series. Right now I want to stick with the basics of commas and quotation marks.

The Beat

If you have too many tags, you can swap some of them out for beats. A beat is, simply put, an action performed by the speaker. It might help us hear how the speaker says the dialogue. It might provide us with some additional information about the speaker’s mental state. It might just tell us what the speaker’s doing while talking.

“What I want to know, Charlie, is how you got out without help.” She took an elaborately etched vintage Zippo from her Coach clutch, opened it with a flick of her wrist, and lit an unfiltered Camel. “How about you tell me that, okay?”

I don’t know about you, but I think that gal means business. And she either has money or knows what resale shops carry high-end leather goods.

“How I got . . . well . . . actually, I did have help.” Charlie was studying her so closely he nearly missed the table with his tumbler. His right foot tap-danced against the table leg.

Nervous fellow, isn’t he? I could have used a tag like Charlie said nervously, but this is much more useful to the reader.


Tags, or attributions, are (usually) two or three-word clauses that tell us who spoke. She said. Charlie replied. They cheered. Tags are fine, but beware of using too many of them. If there are only two speakers, you don’t need a tag after every line of dialogue. Each change of speaker begins on a new line; let that guide the reader, rather than explicitly stating he said and she said (or whatever words are appropriate, of course).

Beats are actions performed by the speaker. The gal up there a few paragraphs smokes unfiltered Camels and owns a pretty pricey handbag, as we see from the beat. Charlie’s the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs as he’s talking with her, nearly missing the table when he sets his glass down. Those actions, those beats, help the reader form a more complete mental image.

In the next part of this series I’ll talk in depth about interrupted dialogue and the ways you can choose to punctuate it. I’ll show you how to use em dashes to insert beats. Additionally, I’ll cover single-speaker dialogue that spans paragraphs. (That’s not really interrupted, but it’s confusing for a lot of people.) It’ll be fun. Promise.


There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.



Prepositions, Churchill, and You

“This is the sort of pedantic(bloody/tedious) nonsense up with which I will not put.” — Sir Winston Churchill (perhaps, perhaps not)

First, I shall provide a link so I don’t have to summarize here. I suspect many of you know where I’m headed with this already. Those who don’t, clickity the link, please. We’ll all wait.

::whistles and has a cup of tea::

Excellent. Now, to business.

It’s nonsense that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, if that’s how it sounds best and makes sense. Blame the essayist John Dryden, since apparently he’s the one who started all of this back in 1672. (If you’ve read the article you know this already. If you haven’t read it, and think perhaps now you should, please do so. We’ll still be here when you come back.) Patricia O’Conner, in her wonderful handbook Woe Is I, puts the blame on Robert Lowth, a English clergyman and Latin scholar, and sets the date fuzzily at the eighteenth century. In any case, who done it doesn’t matter. It was done. (And yes, that’s passive construction. However, I can fairly safely say this was not done by zombies.) Anyway . . .

Many idioms employ prepositions, and altering the word order can create mayhem with your meaning. Turn up (as in “turn up the volume” or “something’s bound to turn up”), lean on (as in “put pressure on someone for answers”), space out (as in “sorry, I spaced out there for a minute”). You can think of more, I’m sure. Cambridge put out a whole dictionary full.

The point of all this is to assure you that there’s no need to twist your sentences into pretzels to avoid ending them with prepositions. There’s simply no reason to do so. If what you have to say sounds best and makes sense with a preposition at the end, run with it. As long as it’s not something that’s really incorrect, such as “Where are you at?” (the “at” is redundant; where already contains the sense of location or placement), no one has any reason to be concerned for your grammatical soul.

My normal caveats apply. If you’re writing dialogue, clearly you might well have a reason to have a character use nonstandard grammar. These hints are generally for more formalized writing, or for the narrative surrounding your dialogue. If you’re writing an academic paper, you will do well to avoid terminal prepositions (ones at the end of sentences) in favor of more standard, formal language. Even journalism (or what passes for it these days) should hew to a slightly more formal standard; avoid ending sentences with prepositions if you can, while maintaining clarity and sense.

Otherwise? No one should care what word your sentence ends with.

(Thanks to a G+ pal who asked me about this earlier today, thus sparking this post! You shall remain nameless. Fear not. I won’t turn you in. Heh.)