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.”
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:

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




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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