Monday, October 1, 2012

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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