Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Controlling Your Dialog Tags

A while ago, we discussed the two prominent schools of thought regarding dialog tags; today we'll go over the kinds of dialog tags you should always avoid. These fall into three classes: grandiloquent, repetitive, and non-dialog.


Grandiloquent means "overly high-minded, pompous, or pretentious, especially in language," and it is a condition that afflicts many new authors. My preferred term for this behavior is highfalutin. 

The amount of grandiloquence you employ should vary depending on what you're writing. If you're working on a very flowery, "literary" type of story, then you'll want to be a little more eloquent, as florid prose is a hallmark of that genre. In any other genre, however, you'll generally want to ensure that your prose calls as little attention to itself as possibleyou want your readers to almost forget that they're reading and simply absorb the story, which they can't do if they have to stop and think over highfalutin language.

Here are some grandiloquent dialog tags that I often see crop up in novice writing:

"Dialog," he opined. < Just use said.
"Dialog," she queried. < asked, unless maybe the character is a computer.
"Dialog," I ruminated. < reflected, remembered, or recalled could all work here. 
"Dialog," it pontificated. < said, lectured.
"Dialog," John soliloquized. < said or reflected, depending on the context.

The line between being precise with your word choice and being too highfalutin is very finegenerally, I recommend leaning toward simpler language if you're ever in doubt.


Novice writers have a tendency to repeat themselves, and one way that they do this is often in dialog tags. Take a look at the following example:

"Welcome to the Nodsdown Fair!" the young woman greeted.

Here, the tag greeted is redundantthe dialog itself already made it very clear that the woman is greeting someone. The tag is only there to let us know who is speaking, so said would be more efficient here. Some other frequently-repetitive tags are cursed, pontificated, lectured, rambled, hinted, joked, agreed, elaborated, and explained.

Now, you might have noticed that some of those words can be found on my list of possible tags from the last post. Sometimes these words aren't redundant, and sometimes they are. It's an even finer line to walk than the grandiloquent line. Just be on the lookout for any redundant tags in your writing, and when in doubterr on the side of simple.


The final type of dialog tag to avoid is tags that don't actually describe the manner in which the dialog was spoken. Take this example:

"I think I can do that," John smiled. "Give me the stick."

Smiled doesn't actually describe the dialogyou can't smile words. This kind of construction usually arises from writers who are trying to cut out extra words and go a little too far. Cutting out excess words is good, as long as the remaining words still accurately state what they're intended to. Our example can be rewritten in several ways:

With dialog tags:
"I think I can do that," John said, smiling. "Give me the stick."
"I think I can do that," John said with a smile. "Give me the stick."

Without dialog tags:
"I think I can do that." John smiled. "Give me the stick."
John smiled. "I think I can do that. Give me the stick."

Some other words that I often see used as tags which don't actually describe the dialog are: nodded, shrugged, blushed, snorted, and ground (as in "he said while grinding his teeth").

(I'll also mention laughed, coughed, scoffed, chuckled, gasped, sobbed, grunted, sighed, and cried. These can be acceptable, as they describe the sounds coming out of a character's mouth simultaneous to the dialog. No, we don't actually laugh words, but we can speak while laughing. But try to use these sparingly.)

I also want to place special emphasis on my personal, most-hated non-dialog dialog tags:

"Dan here couldn't hit a baseball if it was the size of a pumpkin!" Mike jabbed.
"Maybe I should practice with your head," Dan returned.

hate "jabbed" and "returned." Don't use them, not ever. They fall into both the repetitive and the non-dialog categories; what's worse, they always tend to be attached to back-and-forth teasing that isn't nearly as clever as the author wants to believe it is. Please do not use these words as dialog tags.


Many authors use the word sang to mean "shouted jubilantly." While this usage is not uncommon, it can be a little confusing; after all, it is possible to literally sing words. I recommend avoiding it.

Crowed can be used to mean the same thing, and I don't like it. There's nothing technically wrong with it; that's mostly just me.


  1. Very helpful! thx

  2. But then there is the matter of varying your words. Translators howl when they meet entire dialogs filled with "he said - she said - he said". In German this is an absolute no-no and the poor translator has to come up with a different verb every time - something highfalutin when there is no other option left.