Speech Verbs, and Why You Shouldn’t

My brother used to wind people up by adding speech tags in conversation.

Me: I was going to the shops –

Him: “She announced.”

Me: And I saw this bloke –

Him: “She revealed.”

Me: Will you shut up?

Him: “She demanded” – Ow, that really hurt!

Me: “He yelped.”

Speech tags can be just as annoying for a reader, plus you can’t punch the author. All the following horrible speech tags are real examples I’ve encountered as an editor, and all of them jar me right out of any immersion as a reader.

This is Not a Synonym For “Said”

“I’d like a drink,” she averred.

“It’s a nice day,” she opined.

“My name is John,” he pronounced.

See also ‘declared’, ‘asserted’, etc.

These are all (more or less) acts of speech, but they are attention-grabbing, a bit jargony, have specific meanings, and are absolutely not synonyms for ‘said’. I don’t need ‘opined’ to work out that a character is expressing an opinion, and if she isn’t expressing an opinion, then it’s the wrong word. The only reason I want to read ‘pronounced’ is if a character’s name is Xgafjbnvk and he’s explaining how to say it.

If a character is doing something with their speech that the author needs to convey – whispering, hissing, snarling or shouting – that’s fine. (If used sparingly, and if the dialogue supports it. Even better is to make the dialogue snarly or shouty.) But just using a tag as a synonym for ‘said’, rather than conveying a precise meaning about how the character spoke… basically, just don’t.

This is Not a Speech Verb At All

“I agree with you,” he nodded.

You can nod your head till they give you a red hat with a bell on it and force you into a dubious relationship with an elderly gnome, but it won’t create audible speech.

“Wonderful,” she smiled.

Smiling is not speaking, nor is laughing, or giggling. This may not bother everyone but it bothers the hell out of me. They are different acts. Speak with a giggle, smile after you speak, rely on the dialogue to create the character’s light and joyous mood. Or use these as speech verbs and watch me have a brain haemhorrage on your MS. Whichever.

“I – I’m not sure,” she hesitated.

Yuk. Not only is this not a speech verb, but it’s one of those cases where either the action is made clear by the dialogue itself, in which case it’s unnecessary, or the action isn’t in the dialogue, in which case it’s the wrong word. Wrong on so many levels.

Yeah, Well, “Said” Isn’t All That Either

‘Said’ is a much more ‘silent’ word than other speech verbs, but it can still make its presence felt too strongly. I made great efforts to avoid horrendous speech verbs in my own writing, and then had my editor gently point out that my Hemingwayesque reliance on ‘said’ was heavily overdone and became obtrusive through overuse. (She put it much more nicely than that.) And she was absolutely right. I went through The Magpie Lord deleting ‘said’ and turning it into action wherever possible, and the writing sharpened up nicely.

Compare these three. Which is punchiest and most visual?

“You’re dead meat,” John threatened, reaching for the knife.

 The very definition of trying too hard.

 “You’re dead meat,” John said, reaching for the knife.

 What does ‘said’ add here? We know he said it. It’s in quote marks.

 “You’re dead meat.” John reached for the knife.

Snap.

So, down with speech verbs! Bin the thesaurus, lose the obtrusive or inaccurate speech tags, and make your writing visual and active…

… she pleaded.

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3 thoughts on “Speech Verbs, and Why You Shouldn’t

  1. Pingback: Self-editing: Repetition, echoes, and saying the same thing over and over again | KJ Charles

  2. Pingback: Self Editing Tips: Line edits | KJ Charles

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