Attribute Tags and Their Alternatives

By Mark Nichol

While reviewing an article or a story you or someone else has written, you notice a preponderance of iterations of what are often referred to as attribute tags — phrases that identify a speaker, such as “he said” and “she said.” What do you do about this repetition? Several possibilities exist.

The most obvious solution is to vary your attributions by using synonyms for said, and you can easily find such word sets online. But first, a couple of unconventional suggestions:

First, consider leaving them as is. If you’re writing a news article or a similar piece of content in which you are quoting one or more people, you’re doing so to identify your sources and clarify who made each comment. That’s a basic journalistic principle, and even if your content is not strictly journalistic in nature, it’s not necessary to employ a wide array of variations of said.

Note that reporters do not shy from repetition of functional attribute tags such as “Smith said” and “he said.” Skim a handful of news article, and you’ll see it’s true. That’s because journalists know that readers virtually ignore the repetitive verb in favor of keeping track of the shifting nouns or pronouns. Also, said is preferable to many of its synonyms in straightforward nonfiction because it doesn’t have the subjective bias that more colorful synonyms such as groaned or yammered do.

Of course, feature articles and more extensive interviews are another matter. In those cases, judicious replacement of said from a small store of synonyms is reasonable, but know the difference between acknowledge and admit, for example, and understand that crowed or gasped or proclaimed are outsized alternatives that must fit the context.

Often, you’ll find that it’s just as effective to delete attribution as it is to vary it — or, at least, to reconstruct sentences so that you indirectly introduce a quotation rather than directly attribute it. This approach is applicable for narrative nonfiction or for fiction.

Here is a range of alternatives for attributing a statement:

“You’ll be hearing from me again,” he said.

“You’ll be hearing from me again,” he hissed.

“You’ll be hearing from me again,” he whispered menacingly.

He turned to me and said, “You’ll be hearing from me again.”

His reply was emphatic: “You’ll be hearing from me again.”

He looked at me coldly, and his parting words haunted me: “You’ll be hearing from me again.”

What about attribution in extended dialogue in fiction? Refer to the works of your favorite novelists to assure yourself that few attribute tags — employing some variety from the choices displayed above — are necessary, as in this hypothetical excerpt:

“This is Bert’s initial statement,” Bert said.

Ernie stared at him in disbelief. “This is Ernie’s response to the first statement.”

“This is Bert’s reply to that response.”

“Ernie uses Bert’s name in this question.”

“Bert answers the question,” Bert replied as he lit a cigarette. “Then he elaborates on his reply.”

“By now, it’s obvious that the two characters are trading brief comments, each in its own paragraph, so no attribution is necessary here.”

“However, if the conversation becomes more complex to the point of multiparagraph speeches, a simple, single attribution within each paragraph will suffice to clarify who is speaking,” Bert insisted. “Or the writer can mention, for example, that Ernie shifts uncomfortably as Bert explains himself, or that Bert pauses deliberately for effect, or something like that.”

As Ernie strode out of the room, Bert heard him say, “Just don’t ravage Roget in a strenuous effort to lace conversations with vivid but distracting alternatives to said.”

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10 Responses to “Attribute Tags and Their Alternatives”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    A good article, but these two “alternative” are just bad writing:

    “You’ll be hearing from me again,” he hissed.

    “You’ll be hearing from me again,” he whispered menacingly.

    People don’t hiss; snakes do. And attributive adverbs like “menacingly” are just plain bad.

  • Joyce Gram

    I agree with Chuck. For the most part—and I mean most—keep the speech tag to “said.” I’m editing an otherwise excellent historical novel in which the writer has used “beamed” and “glowered,” among many other tags, instead of “said.” You can’t glower your words, you just can’t!

  • Phillip

    I’ll have to respectively disagree with the comment above. Hissing is a sign of disapproval, or an expression of it. It’s not just attributed to snakes.

  • Clint

    I have to agree with Mr. Hustmyre on this one. The examples have a very hacky, Stephanie Meyer-ish feel to them. As a reader, I’d rather subject myself to a thousand saids.

    If a character is menacing, it’s better to illustrate this through the action of the scene or character. If written well, the atmosphere and mood that you’re trying to convey should already be established, without having to rely on ridiculous adverbs.

  • Precise Edit

    My favorite cliché example is “he laughed,” as in, ” ‘Gee, that’s funny,’ John laughed.”

    Technical / non-narrative writing: “Said” and “asked” serve well in most cases. As you note, readers tend to skip over them even while learning who said what.

    Fiction / narrative writing, i.e., dialogue: The problem of attribution remains. Without sufficient clues about who is speaking, the reader may become confused. I have, on occasion, had to manually determine who is speaking to figure out which person said what. For example, I may have to point to the lines one at a time, telling myself, “Ok, this one is her. This one is him. This one is her.”

    In “Solving Common Dialogue Problems,” I explained the three strategies I espouse for identifying speakers, reducing confusion, and increasing reader interest.

    Problem one: Speaker confusion, solved by labeling speakers.
    Problem two: Speaker stasis, solved by providing necessary actions. (Clint: This is the strategy you noted.)
    Problem three: Speaker placement, solved by creating an environment.

    When these problems are solved, the reader will have no problem identifying who is speaking, and the dialogue will be more interesting and productive.

  • Wade

    It is perfectly okay to have a majority of your tags being “such-and-such said” (or missing entirely). It is distracting to have most of them something else. The kicker is that authors experienced at adjusting the ratios are just that: experienced.

    Omitting the tags entirely after a few exchanges works best when the two people speaking have distinctive styles of speaking. Even more so when one tends to use epithets against the other. But if you find yourself losing track of who’s speaking when you read it over again, then that’s the red flag you have something to fix. Perhaps a break in the dialogue for someone to react. Perhaps the speaking style is too similar.

  • Greg

    Huh? What’s wrong with saying somebody “hissed” something? It might not win any prizes, but it’s hardly something only snakes do.

  • Todd

    I have two little pet peeves about this as a reader.

    One is something I noticed many times while reading the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling often uses said after a question, such as,

    “Shouldn’t you be in your rooms?” she said.

    Yuck. That completely jars me out of the story and back to the real world.

    Another peeve is the overuse of personal pronouns. Mystery writers seem to be particularly bad about that. If you stop reading in the middle of a chapter, then come back the next day, you shouldn’t have to scan back 6 or 7 pages to find out who “she” is.

  • kara

    I disagree with writer’s keeping to said/asked and the like.
    It’s boring. I actually do read all the words. I don’t ignore it because I have the entire scene in my head, and without attributes such as “he laughed” or something of the like, how am I supposed to know what the character is feeling?

    “I think you’re stupid!” he said. <– that is boring. And what about the explanation mark? is he yelling? or is that just emphasis on the word stupid?

    "I think you're stupid!" he glared at John. <– well, at least that way you know that the character is angry.

    All I am saying is that it is not BAD writing to use different tags.
    Or Ly words. In fact, that rule only applies to ESSAY WRITING. Thank you very much. Not to fiction writing. So, I'd appreciate it if people actually got their facts straight instead of using the same rule for two different things. It doesn't apply to fiction writing because Essay's are about facts. Fiction is make-believe.

  • B.L Alley

    The one thing worse than repetitive ‘saids’ is having ever-changing substitutes, which end up fatiguing for the reader.

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