The Grammar Grump: Dialogue Tags

A few years ago, when the kid was smaller and far less lippy, he was obsessed with a series of children’s books. Wonderful books, with interesting story lines and well drawn characters, and there were at least fifty of them at the time. One Christmas, we got a few of them on tape and listened as we drove across the country to the grandparents’ house. Nearly every line of dialogue was followed  by a ‘said.’ When you read these books to yourself, you don’t notice them. But when they are read aloud, wow. It became a game as we all shouted ‘said!’ every 30 seconds as the book progressed.

wordle 2I was thinking of this today as I judged a contest entry. After nearly every line of dialogue, there was a dialogue tag–those words used to convey information about the speaker. But because this author had probably heard somewhere that using ‘said’ is boring, she used other words too, including: remarked, explained, asked, instructed, huffed, purred, challenged, inquired, sniffed, whispered, concurred, warned, murmured, intoned, and added. And all of those were in the first few pages. An occasional asked, explained, or whispered is fine, but one doesn’t speak and sniff at the same time–go ahead, try it. In addition, many of the tags were peppered with adverbs–softly whispered, quickly explained. I should add that this entry was otherwise quite well written, but the ridiculous dialogue tags and excessive adverbs may have ruined the author’s chance to final in the category.

So, how to fix this problem? I am not saying a writer should never use dialogue tags. They are essential to clarify who is speaking, especially if there are more than two people in a scene. But you don’t need them all the time. Try a line of dialogue followed, or preceded, by a character’s action or expression. For example:

“You must be joking.” Robert laughed at the thought.
Evelyn sneered. “You’ll see.”

When you do use a dialogue tag, keep it simple. As I noted above, I hadn’t realized the children’s book author used ‘said’ so often, because when I read her stories, ‘said’ faded into the background. It conveys the identity of the speaker without beating the reader over the head. If you want to show a speaker’s emotion, or expression, try it another way:

His smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care, my lord.” She shrugged and turned away.

Pick up a book by your favorite author. How do they use dialogue tags? You may be surprised when you look more closely. The following exchange is from Julia’s Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding. The characters are discussing what it must feel like to know you’re in love:

She lifted her eyes to his, made breathless by the gravity of of her own revelations.”It’s too much,” she heard herself say. “It would be too much. I wouldn’t. . . I wouldn’t. . .”
Slowly, he shook his head. “You would have no choice. It would be beyond your control. It just . . . happens.”
Her mouth parted with surprise. “That’s what she said.”
“Who?”
And when she answered, her voice was strangely detached, as if the words were being drawn straight from her memory. “Hermione,” she said. “That’s what Hermione said about Mr. Edmonds.”
Gregory’s lips tightened at the corners. “Did she?”
Lucy slowly nodded. “Almost precisely. She said it just happens. In an instant.”

There are plenty of other posts out there that go into more detail, and even a few books. Some of the better blog posts are these:
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/said.shtml
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/06/using-dialogue-tags-and-punctuation.html
http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/12/04/another-take-on-dialogue-tags/

How do you feel about dialogue tags, as a reader or a writer?

 

 

 

The Grammar Grump: Adverbs

Ah, the adverb. The bane of editors everywhere, but I think they have their place. I love this quote about adverbs:

“Overuse at best is needless clutter; at worst, it creates the impression that the characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonation to dialogue, or subtly convey information.”  ― Howard Mittelmark, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

I much prefer that one to Stephen King’s famous quote in the image to the left, which seems to me to be a bit harsh. Yes, adverbs can be overused–read any work from a new writer and you will see why–but in moderation, adverbs are an essential component in writing fiction.

 

 

So, to assist you in finding that fine line between just enough and too many, here are the rules for adverbs:

Adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They specify manner, when, where, and how much.

He spoke loudly to be heard over the din. 
She read the letter quickly.
It was raining yesterday.
The dog ran far.
I always eat fish for dinner. (Okay, not really.)
I have never been to Argentina.

Not all adverbs end in -ly, and you can’t always make an adverb from an adjective simply by adding -ly.

Far, fast, ever, and after are all adverbs.
I came across hyperly yesterday in something I was editing. Nope, not a word.

Naturally, there are exceptions, because this is English. (If you ask me, the road to hell is paved with exceptions to English grammar rules.)

An adjective always follows a form of the verb to be when it modifies the noun before the verb.

I was nauseous.
His efforts to be helpful were fraught with peril. 

Verbs of sense and appearance are followed by adjectives when they modify the noun before the verb.

I felt awful.
This wine tastes terrible!

What about good vs well?

It is common to reply to the question “How are you?” with “I’m good.” Others respond with “I’m well.” (I once had a client from Russia who always responded with “Thank you, I am nice.” It was such a lovely phrase, and he was indeed such a nice man, I was very sad when he learned it was technically incorrect and switched to “I am fine.”)

Anyway. Which of these is correct? Both, actually, although well should only be used when you are referring your state of health. Check out this post by The Grammar Girl, or this one from GrammarBook for the reasons why.

Bad vs. badly?

Do you feel bad or badly? Bad is actually correct, because as noted above, you should use an adjective when it follows a verb of sense or appearance. Using badly would imply you are not very accomplished at feeling, which might be true but probably isn’t what you meant. Check out this humorous post from The Grammar Girl (again) for a better explanation, and note especially her comment that an easy way to determine which one to use is to substitute the word am for feel (or, presumably, for another sense/appearance verb). If it sounds funny using am, use the other one. For example:

I feel badly.
I am badly. Um, no.
I look bad.
I am bad. Okay.

Adverbs in dialogue tags

These show up entirely too often in the work of new writers. Adverbs in dialogue tags can be a sign of telling rather than showing. For example, you can write, “OMG!” she said loudly. Loudness, however, is implied by the exclamation point, so you don’t necessarily need a dialogue tag at all, but if you really, really want one, “OMG!” she yelled would be stronger, as it would show rather than tell.

This is not to say you can never use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example, “Thank you,” she said softly is perfectly acceptable (although “Thank you,” she whispered would be better–show, don’t tell).

I do have strong feelings on dialogue tags–a 12 hour car ride to Missouri listening to Magic Tree House books on tape will change your opinion on them, trust me–but that’s a subject for another post.

For more about adverbs, check out these links:

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://writinginwonderland.blogspot.com/2011/04/annoying-adverbs.html
http://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/list-of-adverbs.html
https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/537/02/
http://writedivas.com/quick-tips-adverbial-dialogue-tags/
http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/08/using-adverbs-in-dialogue-tags-matter-style-or-sign-of-timidity.html

What do you think? Adverbs–friend or foe?

The Surprising Truth About Contractions

I use contractions when writing dialogue. When I don’t, the language can seem stilted and unnatural. I have long wondered how common contractions were in days past, but I was afraid to look it up and find that they weren’t common, because then I would have to make a decision: use historically inaccurate language to make it sound more natural, or use historically accurate language that seemed odd to modern readers. But when one of my critique partners objected to the word “can’t” in the first line of my book as historically inaccurate, I finally looked it up.

Did the Victorians use can’t, won’t, and other words regularly in ordinary speech? The answer is a resounding yes, as did many, many generations before them.

The brilliant book English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh (if you write historical fiction you must have this on your shelf) notes that the following words were in use before the seventeenth century:

1605: we’d, you’d
1610: they’ll
1615: they’ve
1625: it’s
1640: don’t, who’d
1655: can’t, won’t
1665: I’d, shan’t
1670: ma’am
1680: they’d
1695: you’ve

Other contractions that we think of as modern date from the 16th century, and were in use before:

1570: I’ll
1580: we’ll
1595: I’m, she’ll, they’re, you’ll, you’re

Others came later:

1745: I’ve, mustn’t, she’s, we’ve
1780: ain’t
1820: t’aint
1860: doesn’t, it’ll
1865: we’re
1890: mightn’t
1905: it’d
1970: ’til

photo (4)These words were in existence, but did anyone use them? Definitely.

Although she used contractions sparingly, Jane Austen’s characters did say “can’t,” “don’t,” “won’t,” and “I’ll”: “[Y]ou can’t think how disappointed he will be if you don’t come to Cleveland.” (Sense and Sensibility, written 1798, published 1811) “…I am sure it will be too much for Kitty. Won’t it, Kitty?” (Pride and Prejudice, written 1797, published 1813) “Captain Harville holds himself quite engaged, I’ll answer for it.” (Persuasion, written 1816, published posthumously 1818)

 

 

In North and South, written in 1854, Elizabeth Gaskell used “can’t” 45 times, “don’t” 79 times, “won’t” 49 times, “doesn’t” 10 times, “I’ve” 40 times, “you’ve” 56 times, and, well, you get the idea. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain–every one of them used contractions in their books.

There are many times when I’m writing that I will want to use a word, only to find it didn’t exist at the time.  Most contractions, fortunately, don’t fall into that category.

What words seem modern to you that might not be?

 

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