Episode 120: July 25, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today’s topic is “How to Use Attributives”
Guest writer Sal Glynn writes:
Dialogue is hard to write and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Getting characters to have individual voices has caused more sleepless nights than too much coffee late in the day. Once the dialogue sounds right and reads right on the page, there is the problem of attributives.
An attributive, also known as identifier or signifier, is the “he said, she said” that show the reader who is saying what. Writers who try to get around them will find themselves more confused than their anticipated readership.
Attributives and How to Avoid Them
Use the name of the speaker if it's not already established so the reader can get right into the scene. Attributives can be placed in the middle of a line of dialogue, as in:
“Nasty as the job may be,” said Henrik, “the goat needs a good scrubbing.”
Trust your ear in deciding where to insert. Never break into the dialogue with:
“Nasty as the job,” said Henrik, “may be, the goat needs a good scrubbing (1).”
For a short line of dialogue, attributives usually go at the end, like so:
“Help me find my leopard skin pillbox hat,” said Daphne.
You can avoid attributives by using the name of the character being addressed, as in:
“Daphne, your leopard skin pillbox hat is on top of the refrigerator.”
“Go scrub a goat, Henrik.”
When two characters are speaking, attributives are only necessary for the characters' first appearances.
“That’s an attractive hammer,” he said.
“A family heirloom,” she said.
“I never would have guessed.”
“You don’t look like the guessing type.”
The reader will keep track of “he said” and “she said” after the preliminary exchange. Further attributives will slow down what promises to be an interesting conversation.
Simplicity is the rule in attributives. Many writers try to think for the reader by replacing “said” with words like grunted, growled, demanded, bellowed, cooed, roared, squalled, and simpered. If the tone of the dialogue is not immediately apparent, rewrite the dialogue and not the attributive.
This goes double for adding adverbs like belligerently, arrogantly, haughtily, angrily, coquettishly, happily, slavishly, and jokingly. Before using any of these or others, ask yourself how someone would sound if they spoke in that manner. When the answer comes back, “I don’t know,” rewrite the dialogue until you do.
Writing for Readers
Many writers rebel at the idea of “he said, she said.” They complain of the blandness and they are right. “He said, she said,” is transparent on purpose. The writer’s job is to put the dialogue into the mind of the reader (2). With too much information, readers have no room to make the story their own. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in comparing films to novels, “There are tens of thousands of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, since each reader has to cast, costume, direct, and design the show in his head (3).” The simple attributive makes for a livelier scene.
Now that you understand attributives, remember the quick and dirty rule is keep them simple and where they belong.