The Journal: Not Tag-Line Verbs (Update)

In today’s Journal

* Welcome
* Topic: Not Tag-Line Verbs (Update)
* Of Interest
* The Numbers


Here I am, barely blogging along after having written a post almost every day for years, and a new reader subscribed yesterday. Welcome, my new friend from Melbourne. While my blogging is less frequent than before, I invite you to use the tag cloud or search box to check for posts on topics that might interest you. A few more folks have joined us over the past couple of weeks too. Welcome, all.

Topic: Not Tag-Line Verbs (Update)

A couple of posts back, I talked about body parts being treated by writers as if they have whole-human or even super-human traits: eyes flying around the room, legs racing down the street, ears hearing, noses sneezing, etc. as if they weren’t attached to a host.

The problem with this is that the reader might see the body part performing a given action sans a body. Not that they will, but that they might. There’s never a good reason to risk distracting the reader from the story. And if there is a good reason, certainly laziness isn’t it. Laziness in a writer most often reveals itself in statements like, “Oh, the reader will know what I mean.”

The thing is, it isn’t the reader’s job to figure out what you meant to say. It’s your job to convey actions, thoughts and scenes clearly so all the reader has to do is sit back and be entertained.

Today I’ll talk about another kind of distraction and one of my personal pet peeves: using verbs that do not indicate a form of utterance in tag lines connected to dialogue. Many well-known writers hold that “said” is the only verb you need to carry dialogue. And they’re right.

I’ve heard poorly informed writing instructors advise students to “spice up” their tag lines with different verbs so they’re more interesting. (You’ll see some of those verbs later in the list.) That is mind numbingly stupid advice. A tag line is not the place to be original.

Why would you want to draw attention away from the dialogue? Dialogue directly engages the reader, even makes him a character in the story (the eavesdropper). Why water down that effect?

So what is a tag line verb? A verb that indicates a form of utterance. Its only purpose is to let the reader know, as subliminally and unobtrusively as possible, which character is about to speak. That’s it. Then it disappears. The best one is “said.” You might also use “asked” (though you don’t really need it since you have a question mark) or you might set the subliminal tone with a verb like “muttered” or “mumbled” or “whispered.” You get the point. But all of those still indicate a form of utterance.

On the other hand, “chuckled” does not. That is to say, you can’t “chuckle” a line of dialogue. You can chuckle and then say a line of dialogue or you can say the dialogue first and then chuckle, but you can’t chuckle a line of dialogue.

You who’ve followed this Journal for any length of time know I’ve kept a list of non-tag-line verbs over the years. In every case, I took them from manucripts I edited or from stories I read.

In a story I read recently in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in place of “he said” the author used no fewer than 17 new tag line verbs or verb phrases, with “new” meaning I hadn’t see them used in tag lines before. Those new words or phrases were bossed, nitpicked, heaped on, quavered, started out, started out full throttle, morosed, testified, balked, promenaded on, opened, galloped on, speculated, grumbled, helped out, cursed, jumped in.

So yes. There was a line of dialogue, and then instead of “he said,” there was “he bossed” or “he morosed” etc. (My all time favorite was “she sentenced.”) You get the point. They were so obtrusive in the case of this story, I finally stopped reading and started counting new weird tag-line verbs. From what I could tell, it was a pretty good story, but I guess I’ll never know how it ended.

Now, do I really care what verb you use in a tag line? No. Why should I? But YOU should care for the simple fact that you should strive never to pull the reader’s attention from the story.

All right, enough of my caterwauling. Here’s the list to date. Feel free to copy and paste it for your own use if you wish:

accused, acknowledged, admonished, affirmed, amended, amplified, answered, assured, attacked, attempted, balked, beamed, blurted, blustered, bossed, brayed, broke in, brooded, brought up, bubbled, burlesqued, burst out, cajoled, came back, cautioned, challenged, chastized, cheered, chided, chirped, chirped in, choked, chorused, chuckled, clarified, coached, coaxed, commiserated, complimented, conceded, consoled, contributed, corrected, correcting, countered, cracked, criticized, cursed, cut in, defended, delivered, delved, digressed, denied, editorialized, ejaculated, encouraged, ended, enjoined, enlightened, enthused, eructated, evaded, exhaled, expostulated, extemporized, finished, fished, fly casted, followed, frowned, frowning, galloped on, gave, gave him, gave him back, gave out, giggled, got out, greeted, grinned, griped, gripped, groused, grumbled, gushed, harrumphed, hazarded, heaped on, hedged, helped out, identified, improvised, informed, instructed, interrupted, intoned, invited, jumped in, justified, kicked out, laughed, lectured, maintained, managed, modified, morosed, mouthed, nagged, nibbled, nitpicked, objected, offered, oozed, opened, opined, ordered, owned up, paddled back, persisted, piped in, piped up, placated, played back, pointed out, pontificated, pounced, pressed, prodded, promenaded on, prompted, pronounced, protested, protracted, pushed, put in, quavered, questioned, quavered, quipped, reasoned, reassured, recommended, reminded, reposted, resumed, retorted, returned, revealed, scolded, seconded, sentenced, shot, sighed, SLEAZED, smiled, snapped, sneered, snarled, snickered, sniffed, sobbed, spat, speculated, spewed, spoke up, spouted, started, started out, started out full throttle, stumbled, SUBMITTED, suggested, sulked, summarized, supplied, sussurrated, syruped out, talked on, teased, telegraphed, temporized, testified, threatened, tossed, touted, tried, trilled, trumped, tumbled out, ventured, vocalized, voiced, volumed, volunteered, warbled, warned, waved, went on, worried.

If you add any to the list, please let me know so I can update my list as well.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Courage in Fiction” at

See “Changes In Publishing” at

See “Writing for a Living” at

See “Writer’s Block: Over a Dozen Solutions to a Non-Problem” at

The Numbers

Fiction words yesterday…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 1040 (Journal)

Writing of (novel)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… XXXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 309655
Total nonfiction words for the month… 4200
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 126440
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 436095

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 5
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 12
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 50
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 208
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

6 thoughts on “The Journal: Not Tag-Line Verbs (Update)”

  1. Hi Harvey, good post.
    In Ian Rankin’s book, House of Lies on page 4 there are 14 dialogue tags, of which only one is simply ‘said’. The others? Here: teased, called, commented, enquired, muttered, complained, announced, concluded, informed, commanded, yelled, replied, offered.
    Not one book, one story or one chapter — one page! Rankin is an award-winning multi-bestseller. Is there a lesson here?

    • Thanks, Bill. No lesson I can see other than once you’re a bestseller you can get away with more if the story’s strong enough. Interesting, though, that you noticed those verbs enough that they took your attention from the story.

  2. Again, to add to your list — I have also encountered: argued, blathered, chimed, shrilled, squealed, screached, trotted out. And, I confess to having used, huffed.

  3. I’m reading a book now where the writer really likes using “smirked” as a dialogue tag. It probably wouldn’t bother me much normally, but the writer uses it at least 2-3 times in every scene. Worse, all the characters smirk at some point, so it isn’t even a tag for a specific character.

    • Yep, they’ll get you. And if the writer only knew, s/he could as easily write “S/he smirked.” And then write teh line of dialogue. Just don’t attach the two.

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