He Said, She Said – When and How to Use Dialog Tags

I don’t want to be a complainer, but well, here goes.  I got the copy edit of my book from Lorimer.  In general it was great. Because it’s a hi/lo book they had to go through it carefully to edit for clarity, change some words to simpler things etc. Most of their changes were absolutely fine.

However, on an early page they changed “Harry’s father said” to “Harry’s father chided“. Uh oh, I thought, but I left it there. But then it came up again, another “he said” was changed to “he chided” and another to “he commented”. There were more. I began to twitch every time I saw one.

Now part of this is my fault. I had put in a lot of “he said” and “she said” where probably they werent’ necessary.  But I couldn’t live with “he chided”. Better to have no dialog tag at all.  I asked the editor about this and she replied that they had been changed because it seemed that there was a lot of repetition of “he said/she said” or because the tone wasn’t clear. Fair enough, I thought. But my reply was that if the tone was ambiguous in something that a character said, it was probably intentional. For example conversations between my protagonist, Harry, who is 14 and his dad, a respected professor.  Conversations between teenage sons and fathers ARE ambiguous. That’s the point. I said as much.

As far as dealing with the repetition, it’s fairly well established that “he said” and “she said” are “invisible” to readers – they don’t really process them or notice them consciously and rarely do they notice that there are too many. So using “replied”, “inquired”, “commented” draws attention to the dialog tag which we don’t want.  There are also problems with using words other than “said” or “asked”. A good outline of what they are can be found here. Despite this general agreement among experienced writers and editors, well meaning English teachers are still inclined to point their students to lists like this. Really? “Bleated”? “Clucked”? If I ever have a human character “bleat” or “cluck”, shoot me.

In general I don’t use tags that indicate the content of the dialog, apart from “asked”. If a question is asked and someone says something, we know that something is an answer without having “he answered”.  We know something is a comment. And “you shouldn’t have done that” is always chiding while “I don’t think that’s right” is always disagreement.

In general tags that indicate the way a piece of dialog sounds are OK with me, although many people seem to object to “hissed”. “Yelled” and “shouted” are fine, in moderation, and “whispered” is sometimes necessary. But I like to stick to the basics. No “bellowed” or “boomed”. No “murmuring” or “muttering”.

“Keep it simple,” she said.

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