Dialogue Tags

Don't we use said anymore?

So I was told, emphatically, by a editor that I did not vary my use of dialogue tags sufficiently - that I used "said" far too often and that I should employ a myriad of other tags (muttered, exclaimed, protested, begged etc.). I was taken aback by this as the instruction I had always received was that you should use said most, if not all, the time. Asked is also occasionally okay, as is the use of no dialogue tag (if it is clear who is speaking) and the use of action tags. My understanding that using other dialogue tags (especially ones that are more colourful - grunted, hissed, proclaimed) was an absolute no-no and that these other dialogue tags were considered to be said-bookisms and marked you as an amateur. Here is another post about them if you don't believe me.


Literature was once replete with said-bookisms. D. B. Jackson has a good post on this. But this changed in the last 20 years and now the majority of writers use said. Or so I thought. But after the encounter with the editor I decided to check. Maybe something had changed. Maybe I had taken the advice too literally.

I used my customary method - I examined the books on my book shelf. Given that my upcoming novel is a middle-grade novel, I focused only on the middle-grade and YA books on my shelf in case they were different than adult books. I went through ten pages of each book and counted the dialogue tags, including the use of no tag and action tags in each novel, and then like a good scientist turned writer, I graphed them. The ten pages were selected pretty randomly, but they had to have dialogue, and they had to have at least one fairly lengthy section of dialogue among three or more people because it is easier to use no dialogue tags when only two people are speaking.

What did I find?

Said still wins the day by a long shot. The first graph here shows the totals for the 8 books that I examined. Said was used 235 times, whereas no tag was used 108 times and action tags were used 78 times. Asked was used 36 times, and other dialogue tags were used 74 times - the most popular being (that had 4 or 5 total uses across all 8 books) continued, whispered, began, demanded, called, muttered, and told.

Graph two here shows the usages by each of the different books. You can see that some writers favour action tags (as in City of Bones), while others eschew action tags altogether and prefer to use no tags (as in The Golden Compass). You can also see (and this is a general hypothesis that requires more data) that younger fiction (Percy Jackson) may favour the use of other tags more frequently. It is of course easier, and perhaps preferable, to use action tags and no tags if possible. However, when a dialogue is occurring among more than two people, it is harder to avoid the use of tags altogether.

This was an incredibly useful exercise for me, and made me more confident in my choice to stick with said most of the time. I would love to hear your thoughts on dialogue tags.  

Thumbnail Photo Credit: Mark Wathieu