How Happy I Am to See You, He Burbled

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Many writers believe they should avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag. Not so! The point of a dialogue tag is to be invisible: what you want readers to focus on is what was said, not how it was said. Using too many other words, some of which require mental gymnastics to read and assimilate, calls attention to the wrong place altogether.

Here’s the thing: “said” can never be overused. I’m occasionally okay with the use of words like “screamed” or  “shouted,” but only sparingly—and only when it advances either the plot or the characterization.

“Said” is like bread: it goes with almost anything without affecting the flavor. It adds no flavor of its own. It’s completely unlike terms like “he noted” (implies that it's a fact of which he took note), “she retorted” (implies a snarkiness that may be inappropriate to her reply), or “he stated” (suggests formality which may not have been there). Like bread, “said” will go with every meal without our being likely to notice it or tire of it. That's not true of most other terms of attribution.

Tom Swift in the City of Gold

I was first introduced to all these said-substitutes under the delightful term said-bookism. Apparently there was a spate of books published in the early years of the twentieth century listing alternatives for “said” so that writers could avoid the dread repetition. And anyone who has read the boys’ series of books featuring Tom Swift is completely familiar with said-bookisms:

  • “There's room for one more,” Tom admitted. (Why is this an admission?)

  • “I like modern painting,” said Tom abstractedly. (Either a bad pun or a nonsensical description)

Some writers whose work I enjoy and admire have a problem with said-bookisms, but I try to squelch the tendency among my students and clients. In particular, I get rather emphatic on said-bookisms that aren’t actual methods of speaking.

As I tell them, no one can smile a sentence.

Some verbs that produce sound also need be handled with extreme care: hissing sentences that have no S sounds in them, for example. Or my favorite, from one of my books. (This was a copyedit from hell, from the writer's point of view.) By the third page, I've already established that my protagonist is irritated and has been dealing with prank phone calls. So the phone rings yet again. I had, “She snatched it up. ‘Hello!’”

I thought this was perfectly clear. The copyeditor felt it necessary to change it to, “She snatched it up. ‘Hello!’ she barked into the phone.”

You try barking that word. I promise, you'll sound like Scooby-Doo.

I got it put back the way I'd had it.

I cannot cite chapter and verse, alas, but I've read studies done with readers that show the humble “said” is damned near invisible. Readers absorb it as a marker, without losing the thread of the dialogue. I believe they tracked eye movements. All the said-bookisms encountered in the study disrupted the flow.

For “state” and “say” specifically, I would point out that to state something implies a Jovian assurance. Take this pair of sentences:

  • “It's cold,” she said.      

  • “It's cold,” she stated.

The first makes a simple declaration of an opinion. The second defies argument and makes the susceptible feel as though they're personally responsible for the temperature.

One final note: when I warn my students about said-bookisms, I also tell them that one way of avoiding an overuse of “said” is to use what I call action tags. Took me a while to come up with a good concise definition and I'm open to suggested alterations, but here's what I currently use: An action tag is one or more sentences that do not contain a quotation but which identify the speaker by means of a non-speech verb.

Example: “It's cold.” Katie shivered and crossed the room. The thermostat insisted it was seventy degrees. She shook her head. “I don't care what that thing reads, it's still cold in here!”

There’s no confusion about who is speaking, the action is incorporated into the dialogue, and I didn't use the word “said” or any said-bookisms.

Action tags are a fiction writer's friend. But they work just as well in nonfiction, too!