Talking Dirty: Orgasms and Vibrators
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Dialogue is usually the direct object of a transitive verb denoting speaking or thinking. Although we don’t usually set off direct objects with a comma, we do when the direct object is a quotation. Look at the direct objects in the sentences below:
Jill flipped the vibrator’s switch.
Jackie said, “I’ve never used a vibrator.”
An easy way to identify a direct object is to ask a question using the sentence’s subject and verb:
Jill (subject) flipped (verb) what? Jill flipped the vibrator’s switch. The vibrator’s switch is the direct object.
Jackie (subject) said (verb) what? Jackie said, “I’ve never used a vibrator.” “I’ve never used a vibrator” is the direct object.
Think of the quotation as a part of the whole sentence including your dialogue tag, even if the quotation is a complete sentence unto itself, such as, I’ve never used a vibrator. And place a comma between the verb and the direct object.
It works the same way when you flip the sentence around:
“You’ve been having orgasms just by pushing on your clit like that your whole life?” Jill asked.
“I’ve never known any other way to do it,” Jackie confessed.
In the first example above, the line of dialogue also happens to be a question, so we need a question mark. The question mark takes the place of the comma you would normally use to set the direct object apart from the rest of the sentence. In the second example, the comma separates the direct object from the rest of the sentence.
If Jill just stated rather than asked her next line, it would look like this:
“You’ve been having orgasms just by pushing on your clit like that your whole life,” Jill said.
And if she exclaimed it—and she might, since she seems to be surprised—we’d use an exclamation point:
“You’ve been having orgasms just by pushing on your clit like that your whole life!” Jill said.
The verb in a dialogue tag must always be a transitive verb. A transitive verb (as opposed to an intransitive verb) is a verb that needs a direct object. Said is a transitive verb. You can’t just write:
Jill turned the vibrator off, sat up, and said.
It doesn’t make any sense, right? We want to know what she said, and as discussed in the previous section, the what is the direct object.
Jill turned the vibrator off, sat up, and said, “I’d like to show you a whole world of ways to have an orgasm, Jackie.”
Or we might write:
Jill turned the vibrator off, sat up, and leaped out of bed. “I’d like to show you a whole world of ways to have an orgasm, Jackie.”
In this example, action precedes the quotation, but the action is separate from the dialogue, and leaped is an intransitive verb. You can just leap. You don’t have to leap something. So there’s no reason to treat the quotation like a direct object.
Assuming that any sentence adjacent to a quotation is a dialogue tag that should be separated from that quotation by a comma is a common punctuation problem. Let’s look at a few more examples:
CORRECT: Jackie smiled. “Let’s start with the vibrator.”
INCORRECT: Jackie smiled, “Let’s start with the vibrator.”
Jackie didn’t smile that line—she said it. Smile is an intransitive verb. You can just smile. Try it! Have you ever tried to smile a piece of dialogue? Here’s another:
CORRECT: “Come over here first. I want to show you something.” Jill leaned against the closet door and licked her lips for a kiss.
INCORRECT: “Come over here first. I want to show you something,” Jill leaned against the closet door and licked her lips for a kiss.
Jill’s got quite a bit going on in these sentences. She’s leaning against the closet door, licking her lips, and speaking. But she is not leaning the words she’s speaking. The quoted words are not the direct object of her lean. (As a matter of fact, the closet door is lean’s indirect object, but that’s another lesson) Nor are her words the direct objects of her licking—her lips are.
Now you know what to do when the quotation is the direct object of a transitive verb and what to do when the quotation stands alone, but there’s one more possibility. I’ll discuss it, along with a couple final tips for dialogue writing, and finish off the story of Jackie and Jill in tomorrow’s post. Subscribe now so you don’t miss it!
It’s Dialogue Month on The Sexy Grammarian’s Blog! This week’s posts focus on punctuating dialogue, and next week, I bring you a series of actual dialogues between the The Sexy Grammarian and a parade of grammar, sex, and communications experts.