Monday, 20 February 2012

The Overuse of Speech Tags Other than "Said"

One of my pet peeves is when writers go out of their way to find a speech tag other than *said*. Apart from being distracting at times, it can slow the pace of your story and it can be likened to *telling rather than showing* (so *telling* with your speech tags rather than *showing* with your dialogue or action tags. Yes, it’s true that there are some very well-known and well-loved authors use varying speech tags a lot and sell many books, but those authors have been published a long time. For the beginning author, it’s better to try to play by the rules to some extent.

There are correct speech tags and incorrect speech tags. The following are common and can be used because they make sense in the correct context: said, asked, murmured, retorted, replied, continued

Strictly speaking, the following verbs are incorrect when used as speech tags: smiled, laughed, pouted, grinned, grimaced

Wrong: “I love you, too,” he smiled.
How can someone *smile* dialogue? Smiling doesn’t involve the voice, just the muscles that crinkle the eyes, pull up the corners of the lips and nose, change the mouth angle, and pull the mouth corners sideways. A person cannot smile and speak at the same time (unless he’s a ventriloquist).

Right: “I love you, too.” He smiled.

Wrong: “I knew I could fool you,” she laughed.
People cannot *laugh* dialogue. Try it. People can laugh while speaking dialogue, but cannot laugh a whole sentence.

Right:  “I knew I could fool you.” She laughed.

Wrong: “You promised,” she pouted.
Pouting involves closing or pursing your mouth. Again, unless she’s a ventriloquist, it’s highly unlikely that your character can pout dialogue.

Right: "You promised.”  She pouted.

Wrong: Grinned is similar to smiled.

Wrong: “That’s disgusting,” he grimaced.
Grimacing is another facial expression, not a way to speak.

Right: “That’s disgusting.” He grimaced.

Most of the time you are better to use *said* because the eye just glides over it without taking it in. Even better, use *said* without too many adverbs because your dialogue should speak for itself. But that’s a whole other blog.


  1. Hi Serena, thanks for the reminder, I can fall into using them sometimes.
    LOL, love the ventriloquist line!

    hugs Lia

    1. Hi Lia,
      There does seem to be an increasing number of ventriloquists in fiction. LOL. Language does evolve and different things because more acceptable, but to me these things just don't make sense.
      Thanks for dropping in :)

  2. Hi Serena,

    Thanks for your great post.

    I read a book recently where the author used only a few speech tags. They weren't needed you knew from the characters' words and actions who was speaking.

    Love you blog.


    1. Hi Margaret,
      Good point. If you can craft the characters well enough, each with a unique *voice*, you don't need too many speech tags.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  3. Nice blog Serena,

    I can remember a few years ago when all the books seemed to be peppered with every other speech tag except said. Times have certainly changed, and I must say for the better.



    1. Hi Margaret T,
      I think it's slowly creeping back into vogue to use a variety of speech tags and often with a variety of adverbs. It can be very distracting.

      Thanks for your comments :)

  4. It's so easy to forget the basics and fall into old habits. Thank you for you refreshing reminder. I shall work hard to keep the ventriloquist out of my writing! Thank You.

    1. Hi Angela,
      "Keep the ventriloquist out of your writing". I can see that becoming my new catchphrase!!
      Thanks for that! :)

  5. Very true Serena.
    Putting the action at the end of the dialogue is also another way of telling, so I try and get the action in before the dialogue, so that I show the reader how something is said, rather than telling them how it should have been said/read.
    That grimace was back on her face. It couldn't be good.
    'Why did you say those things?'
    The floor looks really interesting. 'I didn't mean to.'

    Anyway, I completely agree writers can get so caught up in 'directing' a dialogue scene they end up getting in their own way. The eyes glide over 'said' and the reader can keep on reading. Actions and a thesaurus of tags slow things down.

  6. Hi Ebs,
    Some good examples there. An excellent observation that if you put the action before the dialogue, it "shows" the reader how something is said without one of those "telling" speech tags.

    Thanks for coming in.

  7. Love visiting here Serena. It's a handy site. :) Your tips are great to refresh one's mind. Thanks. :)

    1. Thanks, Suz. Lovely to have your feedback. Thanks for dropping in.

  8. I've had trouble with this one too because nobody smiles words. Once, in a story I did 'he said, smiling.'

  9. Hi Maria,
    Yes, that works because 'he said' the dialogue and 'smiled' (though he would have had to have smiled straight afterwards :) )
    Thanks for coming in.