Writing Pet Peeves: Incorrect Speaker Tags

Is it just me, or does it drive anyone else crazy when a writer uses incorrect speaker tags?

We use speaker tags for two reasons. First and foremost, we use them to indicate who is speaking. The secondary—but not strictly necessary—function is to indicate how the dialogue is being spoken. What a speaker tag does not and should not do is tell what the person is doing as they are speaking—it does not relate an action besides physically speaking, yelling, whispering, etc.

This is why saying, for example: “‘That’s great,’ she grinned,” is incorrect, and, moreover doesn’t even make sense. Can you grin while talking? I mean you sorta can, but it would be difficult to understand and very weird.

Any action besides actual speech is not a speaker tag. We may be in a day and age where we can break the rules of grammar and style more than ever, but this is one thing in writing that does not give.

Another issue I see often is people trying to embellish speaker tags too much. In one of the current books I’m reading, the author tries to not reuse speaker tags so you end up with things like: “she requested” or “I acknowledged.” At this point, speaker tags become distracting, which defeats the whole purpose of speaker tags. They’re meant not to be noticed! You have to use speaker tags when writing a story—it’s just a given. Making them as simple as possible helps to make them “invisible.” When you try to embellish them, they pull you from the story rather than flowing along with it. Are these okay sometimes? Yes, when the context is super important! But for the most part, just keep it short and sweet with “he said.”

In summary: please, for the love of God, do not use any form of “grin” or “smile” as a speaker tag. And secondly: “they said,” “the dragon said,” “she said,” all work perfectly fine and you don’t have to be afraid of using the word “said” too much. Keep it simple. And happy writing!

-E.J.

2 thoughts on “Writing Pet Peeves: Incorrect Speaker Tags

  1. Oh yeah. I’ve definitely read actual published books that had UNIQUE DIALOGUE TAGS for an entire page. The characters crooned, professed, even ejaculated, but they never once spoke normally. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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