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Up From Down Under Sept 2009

Writing Dialogue – Part 1





A 'speech tag' is more correctly known as an 'attribution'. An 'attributive phrase' does just what it says - it attributes direct speech to a specific speaker (or, in rarer cases, speakers).


The attribution can be used to modify the pitch, power or pace of the speech. Consider:


"I can't do it," she whispered.

"I can't do it," she whimpered.

"I can't do it," she said.

"I can't do it," she concluded.

"I can't do it!" she insisted.

"I can't do it!" she yelled.

"Can I do it?" she asked.


Each instance tells us something different. We know nothing of the context but the attributive phrase we use allows us to shine light on the situation, the speaker and the speaker's emotions or actions.*


In the above examples, who was 'she'? We don't know. In context it must refer to a female who has been identified previously. Let's examine it further:


John and Margaret had argued all morning. "I can't do it," she concluded.


So, we know her name is Margaret. We also discern she is being quite definite about the statement because the word 'concluded' infers she has thought about the matter and come to a decision.


What if the situation above had involved two women, Helen and Margaret? A simple 'she concluded' would be insufficient to attribute the statement. Of necessity we should write:


"I can't do it," Margaret concluded.


Let's return to the John and Margaret scenario to illustrate another point.


John and Margaret had argued all morning. "I can't do it," she concluded.


"Yes, you can."


"No, I can't."


"I'm sure you can, if you try hard."




Notice, no speech tags were used after the initial statement. Why not? You should have been able to identify the speaker without them. Go back and look again.  Dialogue is effective if it can run smoothly without being enmeshed in numerous speech tags. Try it, it works.


Good references for this part are:


Attributive Phrases

Verbs that Help You Attribute Quotations



*Some writers/editors advocate the almost exclusive use of “said” for attributions. That stance will be discussed in a later column.


Les Stephenson

Up From Down Under  - September 2009