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Is a Comma Needed to Introduce Dialogue?
Would you add a comma before the quotation marks in the following sentences?
Ellie finally admitted, “They look different from before.”
Kat set the painting on the windowsill, muttering “One more to go.”
It would be more accurate to say “I made it up” than “I exaggerated.”
Mimicking Hector’s level of sass to perfection, Bel said, “Try to keep up.”
The Chicago Way
When it is simply a matter of identifying a speaker, a comma is used after said, replied, asked, and similar verbs to introduce a quotation. Such usage is more traditional than logical.
Garrett replied, “I hope you are not referring to me.”
Sandip writes, “What they did was courageous, if silly.”
When a quotation introduced midsentence forms a syntactical part of the surrounding sentence, no comma or other mark of punctuation is needed to introduce it.
Donovan made a slight bow and said he was “very glad.”
One of the protesters scrawled “Long live opera!” in huge red letters.
She said she would “prefer not to comment.”
Back to the Q
Taking Chicago’s advice, I would answer the question at the top of this post by styling all four sentences as they are shown. The middle ones don’t need a comma, because “muttering” and “say” are not directly tagging a speaker. Besides, I wrote the sentences, I like them that way, and I don’t know of any rule that says they’re wrong.
If that sounds unhelpful, read on to see what real-life published writers are doing these days.
NOTE: A comma might be needed before a quotation for reasons that have nothing to do with introducing dialogue. E.g., the comma after “circumstances” in the second sentence below belongs to a pair of parenthetical commas around “given the circumstances.” It would be there whether what followed was quoted speech or not.
She said that I should “jump in the lake.”
She said that I should, given the circumstances, “jump in the lake.”
Something funny happened when I searched through published novels for examples of commas after words like “said” in front of dialogue: I couldn’t find any. To begin, I grabbed the nearest fiction at hand, Laurie R. King’s The Art of Detection. The book has plenty of dialogue, but the speaker tags always come after the speech, never before:
“Hope to God you had your brakes serviced recently,” she said, her voice tight.
“Been meaning to have them looked at,” Hawkin mused. (25)
And many speeches have no tag at all:
“Did he have diabetes?”
“Heart condition.” (22–23)
Next, I looked at Amor Towles’s The Lincoln Highway. Towles doesn’t use quotation marks. Instead, a new paragraph and a dash signal the beginning of a character’s speech. Action beats are set on a separate line. But again I couldn’t find a single instance of words like “said” leading into a speech.*
—That was right kind of you, said Emmett.
Mr. Ransom grunted.
—But now that you are home, continued the banker, it’s probably best for everyone involved if we see this process through. (8)
TIP: When a speaker tag follows a speech, a comma (or other punctuation) marks the end of the speech. This tradition is widely followed, even when quotation marks aren’t used. It doesn’t matter whether the tag uses noun-verb (“Mary said”) or verb-noun (“said Mary”) order.
“We can’t give change from a dollar,” Henry explained.
“It’s only right!” I pleaded.
—Depends who you ask, barked the cashier.
The same pattern appeared in every book I picked up: Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon; Premeditated Myrtle, by Elizabeth C. Bunce; and How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, by Veera Hiranandani—although incidentally the last was a fun find, a novel written in the second person:
“Have any homework, Muffin?” he says. “Already did it,” you reply, which is almost true. (11)
Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead has precious little dialogue, but there I finally found an example of what I was looking for, a comma introducing a speech:
Mom yelled down from the deck, “You hang on to him, Stoner, I’ll tar you if you get him hurt.” (Kindle)
Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds turned up two more needles in the haystack. I’ll resist quoting the first in this child-friendly space, but here’s the other:
When Collette didn’t answer, he said, “Do you think Professor Robinson has a lump in her throat when she looks at her graphs?” (29)
On a roll, I spied two rare commas after “say” in Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, who not only forgoes the use of quotation marks but also opts to lowercase the first word of a speech:
You just focus on school. You say, we have nothing to do with her. You say, she’s not a part of my life anymore. (9)
Is There a Point to This Post?
Once I began to suspect that this comma problem doesn’t actually exist, it might have been best to abandon the topic. But then I ran across a sensitive and instructive blog post by fiction editor Louise Harnby explaining why “front-loaded” dialogue tags are scarce in fiction and how writers can use them to best advantage. Perhaps it’s because the construction is comparatively rare that writers are flummoxed by it. Never let it be said that the editors at CMOS shy from presenting a writing solution merely because it’s rarely needed.
Evidently, the most popular approach to wrangling commas after dialogue tags that introduce speech is to avoid them. But when a front-loaded speaker tag is the ideal construction for your sentence, the advice in CMOS 13.14–15 is an excellent guide. Use a comma when the introductory phrase tags a speaker. Don’t use one when the quotation is part of the surrounding sentence.
And when a phrase is in the fuzzy middle and it’s not crystal clear whether it’s purely a speaker tag? I would put this sentence in that category:
Kat set the painting on the windowsill, muttering “One more to go.”
Intuition tells me to omit the comma after “muttering,” because it doesn’t look like a direct tagging of the speaker. But would I feel the same if “muttering” were “saying”?
Writer or editor, I wouldn’t want to waste more than a nanosecond worrying about it, probably because—let’s be honest—the stakes here are low. The sentence looks fine with or without a comma. In cases like this, writers should do as they please, aim for consistency if similar sentences are nearby, and rely on a good copyeditor. Conversely, a copyeditor who’s unsure should defer to the writer.
Bunce, Elizabeth C. Premeditated Myrtle: A Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2020.
Hiranandani, Veera. How to Find What You’re Not Looking For. New York: Kokila, 2021.
King, Laurie R. The Art of Detection. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Demon Copperhead. New York: Harper, 2022. Kindle.
Leon, Donna. Death at La Fenice. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Ng, Celeste. Our Missing Hearts. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.
Penny, Louise. The Madness of Crowds. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.
Towles, Amor. The Lincoln Highway. New York: Viking, 2021.
* At least not in a few minutes of page-turning. It’s possible you would do better.
This post originally appeared at The Chicago Manual of Style Online Shop Talk blog on November 8, 2022, © University of Chicago.
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