Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is it "said David" or "David said"?

For a long time, I never realized this was an issue that anyone worried about. Then I started hearing about it on forums, and then I started noticing funny patterns in other places, like books.

People worry about whether their dialog tags should read like this:

"Xxxxxx," said David.

Or like this:

"Xxxxxx," David said.

First, a simple declaration: both are correct.
For those of you who may have doubts, I'll refer you to earlier English where "quoth he" was very common. English is a very flexible language, and the two variants are just that - totally acceptable variants.

That said, I have a very strong instinct about when to use one of these and when to use the other. For me, either makes sense, but there are times when one or the other is definitely more appropriate. I just figured out this afternoon - for the first time on a conscious level - why I choose one or the other.

The answer is: meter.

Many authors manage meter subconsciously and it never becomes part of their conscious concern. This is totally okay, but for those who wish to control it a bit more consciously, I have a couple of posts about it:

Some thoughts on meter
Banjo Patterson and meter
Many Voices (often at least partly distinguished by meter)

Today what brought me my epiphany was one example from my current novel. I was writing along and I came to this:

"Petr," Tagret said.

No problem, right? But we were in a situation where Tagret was trying to get Petr's attention so that he wouldn't jump into a fight. So I then changed it to,

"Petr," Tagret said quickly.

I read it over, and suddenly "Tagret said" jumped out at me as wrong. Here I was trying to have him say something quickly, but it didn't feel quick. I could feel a giant pause right where the quote ended, and it was slowing me down.

Tagret said quickly.

So I switched it to:

"Petr," said Tagret quickly.

The pause disappeared. When I set out to analyze the source of my impression that there had been a pause, I realized that both "Petr" and "Tagret" have the same metrical shape: the trochaic foot, "Xx", where the large X is a stressed syllable and the small x is an unstressed syllable. The version that had "Tagret said" therefore had a break between metric feet that corresponded with the end of the quote, and that gives the impression of a pause. The version with "said Tagret" creates a dactyllic foot with three syllables "Xxx" which falls across the division between the quote and the dialogue tag, thereby pulling readers more quickly toward the end of the sentence.

I suppose that means if you have someone speak in a halting or hesitant way, you might serve yourself better by choosing a metrical pattern that reinforces breaks of this nature.

Anyway, that's my attempt at giving indecisive folks out there (said Joe? Joe said?) a reasoned way to decide which tag to choose in context.


  1. I've been in writing groups where someone claimed there was a right and wrong way (specifically, that agents would immediately reject your submission if you used the "wrong" ordering). I thought this foolish and don't even remember which ordering was supposedly "correct." Like you, I use both, probably based on meter, although I haven't analyzed my intuitive decisions as deeply as you have.

  2. Hi there! Good to see you. I'm so with you there; I've never quite understood the fuss. I never really thought through the reasoning behind my choices until today when it suddenly came clear! I just figured for those confused people it might be a help. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Oddly enough, I said, when I read the title of the post, I immediately thought of meter as the factor.

    Now, when does "Donovan said" come before the utterance and when after? When in the middle?

    "If you are trying to recruit me with inspirational tales," Donovan said, "I’d suggest you build a better repertoire."

    Donovan said, "If you are trying to recruit me with inspirational tales, I’d suggest you build a better repertoire."

    "If you are trying to recruit me with inspirational tales, I’d suggest you build a better repertoire," Donovan said.

  4. Mike, I believe we think alike in some ways! I do have an opinion on the placement of "Donovan said," which has in part to do with the surrounding semantic context. I usually don't precede an utterance with the dialogue tag because I feel its presence as an authorial intrusion into the ongoing scene. My usual approach is your first, where I'll put the tag after the first main clause. The last example works, but I tend to avoid it, particularly if it might appear at the end of a scene or chapter. At that kind of ending-point, the last words heard tend to resonate into the gap of silence between scenes or chapters, and I don't find dialogue tags like "Donovan said" to be nearly as resonant as the content of what Donovan actually said.

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Someone tried to tell me one usage was British, and the other American. Meter makes much more sense! That's how I've used it, and I've ignored the controversy. I'm stubborn that way. ;-)

  6. Stubbornness can sometimes work in our favor. :-)

  7. I never consciously thought about meter when placing a dialogue tag; I tend to avoid tags whenever possible. I have noticed that putting a dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence makes the reader put a bit of a pause there. That fraction of a second can't be described without throwing off the cadence of the dialogue, but that simple tag forces the reader to take that pause anyway.

  8. I find it extremely helpful at times to close the door and read the draft out loud.

  9. Absolutely, m-francis. Reading aloud is a wonderful way to assess meter without having to analyze it explicitly.