Punctuating action between narratives

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“Oops,” Amanda said.  “I was only meaning to say it sounds like a good idea.”


“Oops,” Amanda said, “I was only meaning to say it sounds like a good idea.”
 

(There are probably a dozen alternatives to placing the speech tag (above), but I am just interesting in the correct punctuation—using a period or comma).


Here’s an example why, step by step:


“But if I took the car, I’d have to fill it with gas,” he said.


At the start of a sentence, ‘But’ is a dependant conjunction and requires a comma to form a complete sentence—all conjunctions do.  Now I’d like to add some action behind the speaker (say someone sneaking up behind him):


“But if I took the car,” she was sneaking up behind him, “I’d have to fill it with gas,” he said.


“But if I took the car,” she was sneaking up behind him. “I’d have to fill it with gas,” he said.


As you can see, I am having a bit of a rule dilemma using a period vs. a comma with the person sneaking up behind the speaker.  

asked Aug 03 '12 at 23:36 Todd McQuage Contributor

1 answer


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I'll start with the Amanda sentences. Either is correct. Your choice depends upon how much of a pause you wish to emphasize between the "Oops" and the following quotation. Drop the speech tag and you will see what I mean. 

 

"Oops! I meant to say it sounds like a good idea." Here, the exclamation stands as its own sentence. The alternate "Oops, I meant to say it sounds like a good idea" is also correct but provides a slightly different meaning. In some cases, the meaning can change entirely with the choice of punctuation (see Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, 2010, item 5.208 for a more complete discussion of punctuation with interjections and exclamations).

 

So, in this case, it is your choice as an author.

 

I do not see your second case as a rule dilemma. No rule I know of requires you to end your inserted clause with a period. Indeed, although no grammatical wrong, the period interrupts the flow of your dialogue and may not be the best stylistic choice. Think of your inserted clause as a parenthetical set off by commas.Usually parentheticals are phrases, sometimes they are clauses, and rarely they are independent clauses as in your sample.  The style manuals, such as CMOS, do not address your situation directly, but I would tend to slightly emphasize the parenthetical as a break in the action by substituting an em-dash for each comma. On the other hand, a period seems to be too much of an interruption.

 

Last, your inserted clause, by itself, is weak and awkward. If I may suggest -- "he did not notice her sneaking up behind him as he spoke." The keeps the focus on the speaker while alerting the reader to action the speaker cannot see.

 

“But if I took the car,” he did not notice her sneaking up behind him as he spoke, “I’d have to fill it with gas.”
 

I hope this helps.

link comment edited Aug 04 '12 at 01:06 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

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