Posted tagged ‘dialog tags’

regarding dialog tags

September 25, 2019

From time to time I just can’t keep myself from shrieking into the void about this topic. I think the “rule” that one should only use some form of the word “said” as a dialog tag is ridiculous. It’s a waste of a verb.

I suspect that the notion of this quickly evolved into dogma after Elmore Leonard issued his famous 10 Rules for Writing, one of these being to never use a verb other than “said” to tag dialog. How did the writing world ever get by without this rule?

Quite well, I suspect. (I’ve noted here how Joseph Conrad has his characters “ejaculate” their words.) Some intrepid graduate student might do well to survey the use of dialog tags before and after Leonard’s rule suddenly set such a stupid standard. I suspect that before this rule, there was no reluctance using better verbs than “said.”

Anyway, as I read contemporary literature, my eye is always on alert for rule breakers in this regard. And the more “violations” I see, the more I know that this rule is bogus.

I’m currently reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. It’s a lot of fun. The story involves jinn (genies) who have left their world and entered ours, and the mayhem and countermayhem that goes on is relentless. Rushdie’s writing appears so effortless that it is breathtaking sometimes.

But what I want to point out is a conversation that takes place between a dead philosopher (Ghazali), so dead it’s his dust that is talking, and one of the jinn (Zumurrud). The philosopher is engaging in a bit of sophistry, but Rushdie seems to be taking the opportunity to put the “said” rule in its place:

“Just is,” Zumurrud repeated doubtfully.*
“Yes,” Ghazali confirmed.
“So God is a sort of time traveler,” Zumurrud proposed. “He moves form his kind of time to ours, and by doing so becomes infinitely powerful.”
“If you like,” Ghazali agreed. “Except that he doesn’t become. He still is. You have to be careful how you use your words.”**
“Okay,” Zumurrud said, confused again.
“Think about it,” Ghazali urged him.
“This god, Just-is,” Zumurrud said on a third occasion, after thinking about it, “he doesn’t like being argued with, right?”

*Another of Leonard’s rules is to not modify the dialog tag with an adverb.
**Ha!

sez who?

January 28, 2019

I’m always on the look out for rule breakers. I’ve said before that creative writing is such an uncertain process — does this work? will anyone read this? should I throw away this whole paragraph? do I even know what I’m trying to say? should I have changed my major years ago? — that there is a seductive quality to so-called writing “rules.” My personal bugbear is the admonition that only some variation of the word “said” is acceptable as a dialog tag.

So I’m plowing through Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” right now, and in the first chapter I came across this bit:

The mate went on faster: — “Craik — Singleton — Donkin. . . . O Lord!” he involuntarily ejaculated as the incredibly dilapidated figure appeared in the light.

So there’s a dialog tag you don’t see everyday. And I count two adverbs in the mix. On the preceding page, one character “growls” and another “yelps.” And this is within the first ten pages of the novel.

Granted, this is late 19th Century writing (by a man whose first language was not English, by the way). And people don’t write that way much anymore, but are we richer or poorer for it?

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

May 4, 2011

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).