Speaker Tags ~ You Can’t Cough Speech

Speaker tags can only use verbs that can be used to create speech. Writers often get creative in their speaker tags, but structurally they are incorrect.

Wrong:

“I love you,” he smiled (or laughed, joked, lied, sighed, coughed, chuckled, etc.).
You can’t sigh speech or cough speech, so only use verbs like said, asked, replied. Simpler is better. The word said is most recommended because it is considered invisible—the reader is so used to seeing that word that she glosses over it, which is a good thing.

Correct:

“I love you,” he said with a smile.
“I love you.” He coughed, then added, “I mean . . . I think I do.”

One Response to “Speaker Tags ~ You Can’t Cough Speech”

  1. Margaret December 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    You also have the option of not using “tags” if you make it clear which character is speaking on each line–difficult but not impossible:

    She looked him in the eye.

    “I love you.”

    “Do you, really?”

    “Of course I do, you dope.”

    When it’s done well, with each character’s voice defined, it creates a more natural flow of dialogue. Done badly, it can be very confusing and cause the reader to give up. I prefer this style to what seems to me the awkwardness of “he said, she retorted, they chortled.” It begins to sound repetitive and unnecessary.

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