I said; you said; he, she, it said . . .

I recently finished my umpteenth reading of Philip Roth’s novel The Anatomy Lesson. I think it may be Roth at his narrative best. The voice in this novel is astonishing, a blend of insight and hilarity, often in the same sentence. Complete control and utter abandon.

Which brings me to this dead horse I continue to flog. How did it ever become a “rule” that you should only use the word “said” for your dialog tag? And why do so many people so readily cleave to this so-called rule? I’ve seen it proclaimed that “said” is an invisible word in this kind of usage. Invisible word? Why would you ever want to use an invisible word in your writing? An invisible word is a wasted word!

Anyway, in the span of one paragraph in the Roth novel, about 100 words, he uses the following tags: mutter, whisper, shout, and cry. Each utterly appropriate. Each completely descriptive of the sentiment behind the words spoken. Each word exactly right and doing the heavy lifting in the sentence. It would be a kind of poverty to put “said” in each of those cases. Why do so many people think they should?

I continue to see the advocates of the “rules” of grammar and writing on one side and the great, effective, rule-breaking writers of our literature on the other. It’s any easy choice for me.

Update May 7, 2011: This really exasperates me. (Can you tell?) Never mind my frustration over so many writers adhering unquestioningly to rules. I’ve written more extensively about my speculations for the psychology of it in this post. (And in this post.) What continues to bug me (as well) are the rationales some give for their unexamined allegiance to the rules. I’ve gone to sites where this dialog tag rule is praised, and the writers give examples of how any other word than “said” is wrong. Of course they build strawmen to defend their stance. Of course the examples they give sound bad. They’re designed to sound bad. And so these writers have convinced themselves (their ultimate focus group after all) that they are right, and they go on their merry, unexamined way.

But I still say there is a profound and useful and perfectly acceptable difference between,

  • “I love you,” he said,
  • “I love you,” he cried, and,
  • “I love you,” he moaned.

(That last one especially creates a picture, doesn’t it?)

P.S. Wasn’t I supposed to stop ranting like this?

Update December 8, 2015: My latest story to be accepted for publication, “Been Lonely So Long,” uses “we said” through three-quarters of it.

Update April 20, 2020: In the decade since I wrote this post, I have been paying attention to the uses of “non-textbook” dialog tags in works by major authors, and by major I mean Pulitzer and Booker Prize winning authors. And while not rampant, this non-traditional use is observably commonplace among their fictions. I’ve seen “chirped” and “choked” and “hissed” and “lied.” And in each case, they were exactly the right word to do the job, which is what we writers strive for anyway. Now, I can hear some traditionalist saying that such writers can do this because they are “great.” I suspect it’s the other way around. They are great because they do this (stretch the rules).

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One Comment on “I said; you said; he, she, it said . . .”

  1. Emma Darwin Says:

    The argument about non-“said” speech tags, if I can put it that awkwardly, doesn’t distinguish between the different varieties of such tags, but there’s no sensible discussion to be had till you do make that distinction.

    Of course you may need to indicate volume or how – in terms of sound – something’s said. “‘I hate you,’ she whispered.” is very different from “‘I hate you,’ she shouted.”. And such tags may be more useful still: it’s a wonderfully economical way of bringing out the subtext of a scene, to write that a speech is ‘muttered’ rather than ‘announced’, for example.

    But entirely necessary tags like these are NOT the same as speech tags which hammer home a point by Telling us something about what’s said, when it’s perfectly well Shown by the speech or elsewhere: ‘he joked’, ‘she commended’, ‘I lied’. They’re almost always redundant, if the speech and surrounding character-in-action have been written properly, and like all redundancies they weaken what they seem to be strengthening.

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