Placement of Dialogue Tags

It is a minor technical issue, but one that has caused me some angst in the past – the placement of “said” in dialogue. Should it come before the speaker’s name (or speaker pronoun), or after? I know that both are considered correct. But is there a convention in literary fiction? And is it okay to place said before and after the speaker’s name interchangeably in the same piece of fiction? Having spent some time running a searches on said when I am finished writing a piece to make them all consistent, I thought it would be helpful to know if there is a preferred approach.

As I have done before, I pulled eight books at random off my shelf to see how other writers approach this. I ensured that they were somewhat of a cross-section of more genre fiction and literary works (note – there are a few that I have not purchased or read in this stack). I read pages 60-70 in each book. I also decided to check for use of other types of dialogue tags (asked, interjected etc.) and use of adverbs.

1)   Loving Frank by Nancy Horan – Horan places said after the name consistently. She makes very sparing use of dialogue tags, which is possible because most of her conversations are between two individuals. Horan also uses quite a few tags other than said – agreed, interjected, laughed and asked. She uses few adverbs, but I did find a couple.

2)   Treading Water by Anne DeGrace – DeGrace places said both before and after the name with no apparent preference. She uses a few tags other than said – pleaded, grunted, and asked, but no adverbs.

3)   Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – Franzen consistently places said after the name and often does not use dialogue tags.  He occasionally uses tags other than said – persisted and asked and rarely uses adverbs.

4)   Still Alice by Lisa Genova – Genova makes very sparing use of dialogue tags and places the said before the name consistently.  She uses a few tags other than said – asked and yelled and no adverbs.

I looked at four others: The Tenth Gift, The Last Summer (of You & Me), Through Black Spruce and Baby Proof all place said or says after the speaker’s name. They all use tags other than said – mostly asked, but not frequently, except for Brashares in The Last Summer uses asked more frequently than she uses said. The only book other than Treading Water that alternates the placement of said is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. 

To summarize the results:

Said after the name: 5/8 books

Said before the name: 1/8 books

Said before and after the name: 2/8 books

It appears that all three approaches are acceptable and it was helpful to see the frequent use of tags other than said – not exclaimed, stuttered or bawled of course - but the dialogue tag convention seems to be less restrictive than I thought. The sparing use of adverbs was a good reminder to always run a search on and prune those 'ly' words.

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