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I have a habit of using action tags in the same way as dialogue tags.

Example:

"I don't know," she said.

"I think not," he scratched his chin thoughtfully.

"This could have gone better," the man frowned.

vs.

"I don't know," she said.

"I think not." He scratched his chin thoughtfully.

"This could have gone better." The man frowned.

See how in the first block, I've punctuated dialogue & action tags the same?

I often do that because (to me) the "soft break" of a comma makes actions feel like they're happening simultaneously with the dialogue. But I'm not sure if this punctuation is grammatically correct, or more importantly, if it's readable to others.

Is this ever acceptable grammar in fiction?

closed as primarily opinion-based by AmE speaker, Cascabel, Skooba, Chenmunka, user067531 Jan 29 at 19:44

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Do you read much fiction? What have you seen in there? At any rate, you can write any way you like; your editor/publisher might have the last word. – AmE speaker Jan 25 at 22:11
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    The second set is conventionally punctuated. It's only with verbs of saying/dialogue tags that lead into, break or follow quoted text that the comma can be used. – Zan700 Jan 25 at 22:27
  • Thank you. Could you post that as an answer so I can mark this solved? I can answer it myself, but I'd hate to deny you the credit. – Hyperglyph Jan 25 at 22:29
  • Punctuation is not grammar. – choster Jan 26 at 0:44
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Your version is nonstandard—and arguably ungrammatical.

Consider this:

"I don't know," she said.

This is really the same as:

She said the words "I don't know."

I added the words and removed the stylistic comma for emphasis—and to help better make the next point.


Now look at your other sentences:

"I think not," he scratched his chin thoughtfully.
He scratched his chin thoughtfully the words "I think not."

"This could have gone better," the man frowned.
The man frowned the words "This could have gone better."

You can say words, but you can't frown or scratch your chin thoughtfully words.

Unless it's some science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel where that literally can be done and you're making an explicit point about it. In such an edge case, it might be considered acceptable. But I wouldn't base any regular writing on that premise.


It's understandable if you see separate sentences as causing a break in timing that you don't like—and if you want to preserve the use of a comma within a single sentence to prevent that.

However, you can do all of that while still following normal convention and maintaining grammar:

"I don't know," she said.
"I think not," he said, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
"This could have gone better," the man said, frowning.

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