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Someone told me that it's incorrect or outdated punctuation to put a comma after "said" in dialogue tags such as the following (from an old book we're reprinting):

“I shouldn’t wonder if you could come back here tomorrow if you like,” said Amanda, with a glance at Pyxie. (comma after "Amanda")

"You’re tuckered out,” said Mrs. Barr, when supper was over. (comma after "said Mrs. Barr")

"His folks ain’t ever coming back,” he said, with a shake of his head. (comma after "he said")

“Let’s hear what he has to say, Mother,” said Mr. Barr, in his slow, easy-going way. (comma after "Mr. Barr")

I can't seem to find anything that discusses this particular question online. Can anyone verify if it's correct or incorrect to include these commas? Some authoritative links would be fantastic to back me up one way or the other.

  • Hi, Beckylou! Were either of us able to answer your question, or do you need something more? – Dan Jan 27 at 2:36
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One of the purposes of punctuation is to tell you when to breathe.

Imagine that you are an actor, speaking these lines out loud. Not just the dialogue, but the entire story. Will you speak each word immediately after the last, with no changes in speed, no pauses? As an English speaker, you could figure a fair bit of them out without any help (as people do when reading text messages). But punctuation is there to help.

Punctuation also helps structure the work, alleviates confusion, and makes it easier to parse. But here the purpose is to tell the reader (or speaker) when to pause and for how long, where to put emphasis, and so on.

Commas are brief pauses. They also tell you which words belong together in a phrase. Sometimes a comma is convention, as with putting one at the end of the quote but before the "he said" portion. But others are optional.

Read the lines out loud. Any of these could go either way. Do you like the line better with or without the pause? Add or remove the comma to achieve that. The presence or absence of a comma gives them slightly different emotional contexts.

"His folks ain’t ever coming back,” he said with a shake of his head.

This implies that the head shake is to emphasize the "no" of the quote. No siree, they aren't coming back.

"His folks ain’t ever coming back,” he said, with a shake of his head.

This implies that the head shake is an indication of his feelings about the fact that they aren't coming back. Sadness or disappointment perhaps. It's subtle, but it's there.

If you make very small changes to how you speak a sentence, you'll find subtleties there as well.

So forget rules about being "outdated" or that tell you you're wrong even when it's grammatically okay. Instead, think of punctuation as ways to guide your reader so that s/he will get your intentions.

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"It is correct to use commas in dialogue tags," said Dan, taking another bite of cheesecake.

Note, however, you don't need a comma in cases like this:

"I need to work out more," says the guy stuffing cake into his mouth.

where the entire phrase is identifying the speaker via the action.

Here are some additional links that discuss this:


Detailed discussion:

(Just to make sure we address the heart of the matter: You mentioned you're reprinting an old book; I'm presuming that's just incidental, and you're not asking because you're considering whether to alter the original punctuation, yes?)

Generally speaking, there is nothing stylistically wrong with such commas. There are two things in play here:

  1. Punctuation exists to make reading more clear.
  2. Punctuation can alter the meaning of a statement.

As to the first point, it's uncommon to encounter a situation where there would be any ambiguity if you didn't include a comma after the speaker. (Plus, if such a sentence were that convoluted to begin, then the writer might be better off rewriting it altogether.) So in this one regard, you might see commas in this situation as superfluous.

However, this isn't necessarily the sole purpose of these commas. Even ignoring the possibility of long, confusing said-so-and-so statements, there can't (or shouldn't) be any blanket statement that such commas are an "outdated style," because punctuation also alters meaning. Writers use punctuation to tweak phrases exactly the way they want them to be read.

Commas, in particular, affect pacing, as though taking a breath while speaking. They can influence how the reader interprets the timing of an action in very subtle ways, slowing down or speeding up a statement. This is just another tool writers have to fine-tune their writing.

In many cases, it may make no real difference in meaning whether the comma is there or not. But to summarily dismiss all cases of this usage as antiquated is misguided.

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