Formatting and Punctuating Attributors

questionmarkSomething a lot of people struggle with is the punctuation and format of attributors. Attributors are the ‘he said’, ‘she asked’, ‘he shouted’, tags that precede or follow dialogue.

Arguably the mistake that people make most with attributors is this:

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all,’ Said Bob.

The attributor is always lowercase. Without exception.

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all,’ said Bob.

That also applies if the punctuation in the dialogue is an exclamation mark, question mark, or ellipsis.

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all!’ said Bob.


    ‘Is that what you think?’ asked Bob.


    ‘I’m not sure what I think …’ said Bob.

Despite the end punctuation in the dialogue, you need to look at the dialogue and the attributor as a singular sentence. Just as you wouldn’t have a word randomly Capitalised in a standard sentence, neither should the attributor be capitalised.

What if you use a full stop, though?

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all.’ Said Bob.

Surely, in this situation, you’d use a capital? No. This construction is a grammatical impossibility. An attributor cannot follow dialogue that ends with a full stop. Once the full stop is employed, you’re beginning a new sentence. So if you have something like the above, either change the full stop, or remove the attributor.

When attributors are employed, the only things capitalised are names.

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all,’ Bob said.

And proper nouns.

    ‘We should tax the use of attributors,’ the Liberal Party vowed.

And the pronoun ‘I’, which is capitalised as a matter of rule.

    ‘No, I don’t think that at all,’ I said.

Other pronouns are not capitalised.

    ‘Don’t capitalise!’ they shouted.

The exceptions (names, proper nouns, and the pronoun ‘I’) aside, this convention applies regardless of what follows.

    ‘Stop!’ most of them shouted.


    ‘Are you following me?’ the choir sang.

When the attributor precedes dialogue, this is something we see often:

    Bob said, ‘no, I don’t think that at all.’

Now, the dialogue begins with a lowercase letter. No. Dialogue should always begin with a capital. It’s the beginning of what somebody’s about to say.

    Bob said, ‘No, I don’t think that at all.’

Something else we see often is something like this:

       I went out to the shops, and scoured the shelves. Elsie waited impatiently behind me, tapping her foot, so I said,
       ‘I’ll just be a minute.’

Here, the attributor is on one line, and the dialogue begins on the next. Dialogue should always be connected to its attributor.

    I went out to the shops, and scoured the shelves. Elsie waited impatiently behind me, tapping her foot, so I said, ‘I’ll just be a minute.’

Or you could reformat this sentence entirely:

       I went out to the shops, and scoured the shelves. Elsie waited impatiently behind me, tapping her foot.
       ‘I’ll just be a minute,’ I said.

This has been touched on in previous blogs about dialogue, but always be aware of what is a legitimate attributor and what’s actually an action.

    ‘You can’t do that,’ I laughed.


    ‘Oh, if you say so,’ you sigh.

A laugh is a sound of amusement. A sigh is an exhalation of breath. There are other examples. These sort of things are physical actions. At no point can they describe the way dialogue is articulated.

If you disagree, try it. Laugh a sentence at me. Laugh at me, ‘You are wrong.’ It’s impossible to do, without producing some singsong parody that would sound like a kookaburra singing. Sigh at me, ‘Oh, very well, if you’re going to browbeat me, I give up.’ How does that sound? These things are actions. They’re not the way somebody talks.

    ‘You can’t do that.’ I laughed.


    ‘Oh, if you say so.’ You sigh.

Admittedly, the context and delivery of the verbs change here to the way they were intended when they were being used as attributors. Sometimes, simply flipping where the verbs appear can address this.

    I laughed. ‘You can’t do that.’


    You sigh. ‘Oh, if you say so.’

If this doesn’t remedy the context, try finding another way to communicate your meaning. It’s writing. You can do anything. Except flagrantly break the rules because it’s the easiest solution. That’s not innovative. It’s just wrong.

Lastly, note that in all these examples, the punctuation separating the dialogue from the attributor is tucked inside the dialogue. It’s not:

    ‘I wonder where the comma should go’, Bob said.


    ‘Do you know where the question mark goes’? Bob asked.


    ‘I wonder where the comma should go,’ Bob said.


    ‘Do you know where the question mark goes?’ Bob asked.

There are times that the punctuation might sit outside quotation marks, but this usually occurs when somebody is being quoted, or partially quoted:

    Bob had told me that he was confused about ‘the use of attributors’, and that he ‘was about to give up’.

Here, the punctuation belong to the narration, so it sits outside the quotation marks. When the punctuation belongs to the dialogue, it sits inside the quotation marks.

The formatting and punctuation of attributors is simple. Read any book and you’ll see how they’re done. The reality is when they’re done right, you don’t question it, you don’t even see it, instead unconsciously inferring the visual cues, which allows you to absorb whatever you’re reading. Do them wrong and people will stop and say, ‘Huh?’

And that’s when you lose them.


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