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Capitalization and Em Dashes and Parentheses and Dialog, Oh My!

Two weeks ago when we posted our “Formatting Tweaks to Help Your Typesetter Have a Great Day” post we mentioned that the “Capitalization Quirks” section became so long that we decided to break it out into a separate post. That didn’t get put up last week cause of debuting May Trope Mayhem, but the time is NOW!

Capitalization Quirks, or: How to Get More Capitals and Lowercase Letters Right So Your Editor Has One Fewer Thing To Do!

At the most technical, literal, simplistic level, all sentences in English should start with a capital letter. If you google “should I always start a sentence with a capital letter,” all the top results say yes. But! That’s overly simplistic. For example:

“I was just saying—”

“—That you’re tired.”

That’s wrong, because it’s not a new sentence. The “—t” needs to be lowercase. Thus, this should read:

“I was just saying—”

“—that you’re tired.”

Then, there’s sentences that “trail in” with an ellipse. For example: 

“…when did you say that?” 

This one, on a technical level, could go either way. Duck Prints Press goes with lowercase on this, using the same reasoning as the em dash case: it’s not a complete sentence, more of a fragment.

Some other examples where there shouldn’t be a capital (I’ll bold the letters that shouldn’t be capitalized).

Case 1: “In any event”—taking a deep breath, she flopped into her chair—“it is what it is.”

Case 2: After I got to the event (which took way longer than it should have, but that’s a different story!), we went to our seats together.

Case 3: Every time he thought he was finished—every time!!—he realized he’d made a mistake and had to start over.

Those cases are relatively simple and clear cut. Not all sentences will be. Often, when writing dialog, people use many permutations of sentences, not-sentences, ellipses, em dashes, and more. Keeping track of what needs to be capitalized and what doesn’t requires knowing a lot of quirky rules. People especially often end up confused about when text following quotes should have a capital letter and when it shouldn’t. The rule of thumb is, if the text in question is a dialog tag, it should be lowercase, even if the dialog before it ends in a question mark or exclamation mark.

(Again, bolding the lowercase/uppercase letter in spots where people most often get mixed up.)

“This example needs a lower case letter after it,” she explained.

“Does this—?” he started to ask.

“Yes!” she interrupted.

“What about this one?” he said.

“Yes, that one too…” she replied, sighing.

If, on the other hand, the narrative text after the dialog is an action (as in, not a direct dialog tag indicating how the thing was said), then it should be uppercase.

“I’m still confused how this works.” Rubbing his brow, he took a deep breath.

“I promise it’s not that hard.” She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing down examples.

To help keep clear when to do this: if what you write can be replaced with say/said and still make sense, then it’s a dialog tag. If it can’t be, then it’s not a dialog tag and it should be capitalized.

“I don’t know when what follows counts as a sentence and when it doesn’t,” he pointed out with a frown.

“It depends how you’re describing what the person said.” Her voice took on a frustrated tinge.

But! That’s not all!

“What about if I, I dunno…” He looked at the examples she’d written down. “What if there’s more dialog after the first thing said and the first batch of narrative description?”

“Then”—she grabbed the pen and started writing more sample sentences—“it depends. For example, if I’m interrupting my own dialog with an action and no dialog tag, then it should probably be between em dashes, and only the first letter of the first sentence is capitalized. But if instead I interrupt myself with a dialog tag,” she continued, “then that uses commas, and again, only the first sentence is capitalized.” She paused, took a deep breath, then added, “But because that’s not confusing enough, if I stop, then use a narrative line that ends with dialog tag and a comma, then keeps going as dialog, then both the narrative sentence and the start of the dialog sentence needs a capital.”

“What about if everything is a sentence?” He grabbed the pen from her hand and scrawled down a few notes. “Then is everything capitalized?”

She threw him a thumbs up, an unspoken “you’re getting it now!” implied by the gesture.

Aghast, he blinked at what she’d just demonstrated. Finally, after working his mouth in silence for at least a minute, he managed:

Does this ever make sense?”

“No,” she allowed, “but when you do it enough you start to get used to it.”

Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s the worst. I probably forgot at least two permutations, too, but I tried. Fixing capitalization on all of the above is a constant effort. Good luck?

All of these more-or-less follow the established rules of dialog capitalization, but there are some cases that simply don’t have a standard. For these, it will often depend on which style guide is being used, what editor is doing the work, what each individual publisher has decided, etc. Here’s some examples, with explanation of what they show.

“I don’t— Like, what am I supposed to do if there’s no standard?” Frustration was clearly starting to get the better of him. (This is: self-interruption to start a new sentence—we use: em dash + space + capital letter.)

“Hmm…probably your best bet is to just pick a way to handle each case and make sure you’re consistent.” (This is: self ellipse-marked pause/trail off that continues as the same thought—we use: ellipse + hair space + lowercase.)

“So if I…I don’t even know… What if I can’t remember what I did before?” (this is: trailing off, then continuing with a new sentence—we use: ellipse + space + capital.)

“Just—just—just figure it out! How am I—just a person trying to give a tutorial!—supposed to predict every kind of dialog you’re going to want to write?” she spluttered. (First part is: stutter/self-interruption, incomplete/continuing thoughts—we use: em dash + lowercase (no space). Second part is: em dash interjection in dialog, which uses the same rules as em dash interjections in narrative—we use: em dash + lowercase (no spaces).)

“Wh-wh-wh-what, that’s all you have to offer?” (This is: stuttering incomplete words—we use hyphen + lowercase (no spaces).)

Damn it… Do you really expect me to make all the decisions for you? she thought…but then she realized she should be kinder—this was hard stuff! “I guess I’d just suggest…make yourself a ‘personal formatting’ doc and write down how you did…whatever you did…when it came up?—that way, when it happens again, you’ll at least have a paper trail so you don’t have to scroll back to check what you did.” (This is: the same approaches as described above before, applied to thoughts and narrative text.)

And, that’s basically that! Did I miss any? Questions? Comments? Thoughts?

In conclusion…

“I hate English,” he grumbled, taking up a lighter and burning the paper on which she’d written her examples.

“Me too,” she agreed fervently.

Uh…happy writing? Or at least good luck!!!


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