Dialogue Tags: An Empirical Study

Dialogue tags (“he said”, “she said”) seem simple, but can be surprisingly subtle. There are also a lot of variations that aren’t covered in common guides. I’ve had trouble finding good information about dialogue tags online, so I decided to put together this guide, mostly for my own use. Hopefully it might be useful for others as well.

My goal here is more descriptive than it is prescriptive: I’m not interested so much in what one “ought” to do (as if this could be distilled down into a set of rules), as in what actually happens in practice in the writings of successful, well-known authors. I present a qualitative and quantitative analysis based on the works of some authors I like. The best part about this is that you can repeat this analysis yourself! You can determine for yourself what authors you admire are doing in their own writing.

I’ve found in my study (both the qualitative and quantitative portions), that techniques that are often discouraged in writing guides are in fact in widespread use by well-known, successful authors. This indicates to me that perhaps we should re-evaluate how we teach the use of dialogue tags.

Having said that, none of this will directly answer the question when you should use a given technique in your own writing. Ultimately, this is up to you as the author to determine for your own book. But I hope the data presented here can be a starting point for thinking about your own writing style.

To start off, I’m going to first go over some terminology. For each style of dialogue tag, I give examples taken from the works of well-known authors. I’ve based these categories on what I find authors using in practice in their books. In some cases these are well-known techniques that you might find in other writing guides. In a couple cases, I’m finding things that I haven’t seen described elsewhere, at least not in detail; in a small number of these cases I found myself needing to create new terminology to describe what I see.

After this I conclude with a quantitative analysis where I go through four books and report in detail the numbers of occurances of the various forms of dialogue tags discussed in the initial sections.

In my qualitative analysis I use examples from the following authors. You could do this analysis with any books you want; these just happen to be a few of my favorites.

  • J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Harper Collins. First published 1954-1955. Kindle Edition, 2009.
  • Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. Public Domain Books. First published 1813. Kindle Edition, 1998.
  • Frank Herbert. Dune (40th Anniversary Edition). Penguin Group US. First published 1965. Kindle Edition, 2003.

(In case you haven’t read these books before, I try to minimize spoilers by quoting mainly from the early chapters.)

My more detailed quantitative analysis is currently limited to British style dialogue tags due to challenges in analyzing arbitrary noun phrases that would be required for a robust analysis of American style tags. This limits the analysis to The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. I also include the first Harry Potter book, as well as The President Is Missing—the latter chosen mostly because it is a recent New York Times #1 Best Seller that happens to use British style tags:

  • J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Pottermore Publishing. First published 1997. Pottermore Edition, 2012.
  • James Patterson and Bill Clinton. The President Is Missing. Little, Brown and Company. First published 2018. Kindle Edition, 2018.

Similar studies could be conducted for other books, and at the bottom I provide links to the technical details required to reproduce my study. The main limitations are as noted above, on the style of dialogue tags that can be handled, and the time required to perform an handful of manual setup steps for the analysis.

Basic Tags: British vs. American

The first thing to know about dialogue tags is that there’s a split between the British system and the American system. Of course this is not a hard and fast divide. I’m an American and I prefer the British system. Some authors mix both in the same book, but this seems to be uncommon. Most authors pick one and stick with it.

 BritishAmerican
Pronoun"he said", "she said""he said", "she said"
Noun"said Alice", "said Bob""Alice said", "Bob said"

Notice that the pronoun case is the same in both cases while the noun or proper noun case is different.

It’s worth mentioning that there is also an older form where the pronoun is flipped: “said he” or “said she”, etc. This form is considered archaic, and is very rare in contemporary writing, if it is used at all. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the modern form occurs 764 times, while the archaic form occurs only 10.

Examples:

Below as I will do throughout, I have marked the verbs or other areas of interest in bold, to make them easier to spot.

British:

“You’re right, Dad!” said the Gaffer. (The Lord of the Rings, 22)

“Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father; “she times them ill.” (Pride and Prejudice, 14)

American:

“Remember that you’re a duke’s son,” Jessica said. (Dune, 7)

It’s worth noting that even well-known authors are not always perfectly consistent in their choice of dialogue tags. For example, I have found examples of Tolkien using American dialogue tags, or Herbert using British tags, etc. However generally these are the (very) rare exception.

Functional Tags

This distinction is slightly arbitrary, but I find it useful. Many guides censure the use of said-bookisms: dialogue tags with any verb other than “said.” This is well-meaning advice but I believe unhelpful. The intention, as I understand it, is to avoid drawing attention away from the dialogue onto the tag verb. Also there is a sense that using verbs that are too “descriptive” can hide weak dialogue.

However, there are a number of verbs that are clearly useful in dialogue, not because they are descriptive, but because they indicate the function or role of a piece of dialogue. These include: asked, replied, answered, continued, added, repeated, etc. For lack of a better term I call these functional tags. (If anyone knows the proper name for these, please let me know.)

In practice these seem to occur less often than the basic “said”. But they still occur on a regular basis, and it’s easy to see why, because of their utility in informing the reader about the functional role of the speech being presented.

Examples:

“But what about this Frodo that lives with him?” asked Old Noakes of Bywater. (The Lord of the Rings, 22)

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.” (Pride and Prejudice, 12)

“‘I am Bene Gesserit: I exist only to serve,’” Jessica quoted. (Dune, 23)

Descriptive Tags

And now for the much maligned descriptive tag verbs. By this I mean verbs that describe the manner, mood or inflection of the speech and not simply its function or form. Examples: shouted, whispered, yelled, murmured, cried, whimpered, observed, retorted, argued, snorted, stammered, exclaimed, demanded, snarled, growled, rumbled, breathed, roared, panted, blurted, etc.

Despite admonishions to the contrary, these verbs are clearly widely used. I have hard numbers on this below, but functional and descriptive tags are both less common than the basic “said” tags, but still quite common. I include a larger selection of samples below so you can see how they get used in practice.

Examples:

“Ah, but he has likely enough been adding to what he brought at first,” argued the miller, voicing common opinion. (The Lord of the Rings, 24)

“And you can say what you like, about what you know no more of than you do of boating, Mr. Sandyman,” retorted the Gaffer, disliking the miller even more than usual. (The Lord of the Rings, 24)

Note also the use of a simultaneous action (see below).

“Well, er, yes, I suppose so,” stammered Bilbo. (The Lord of the Rings, 33)

“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.” (Pride and Prejudice, 41)

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am NOT a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.” (Pride and Prejudice, 42)

“Who are you?” he whispered. “How did you trick my mother into leaving me alone with you? Are you from the Harkonnens?” (Dune, 8)

“They were toys compared to me,” Piter snarled. (Dune, 18)

“Look down, lad,” Gurney panted. (Dune, 35)

Tags That Are Not Verbs of Speech

This is one of the few cases that I would recommend avoiding outright. Some authors use tag verbs that are not a part of speech at all. This is generally jarring because the assignment of a non-speech verb to dialogue is contradictory.

Notably, out of all of the forms I’ve identified, this is the only one which I cannot find in widespread use in the writings of well-known authors.

Example:

This is an example from Gilbert the Great by Jane Clarke.

“You didn’t make Raymond leave,” Mom smiled. “Everyone fights sometimes.” (13)

This probably would have been better phrased as an action beat (i.e., by changing the comma to a period; see below).

Adverbs, Phrases

This is another case that is often recommended against in writing guides. Again, clearly, this is common use in practice, though I think not as widely as what I call descriptive tags (see above). I have struggled to find an example of Herbert using an adverb in a dialogue tag, for example.

The rationale against these is similar to descriptive tags: it can potentially distract from the dialogue and may hide weak dialogue. However, the benefits are also clear: adverbs and other phrases can serve to strengthen dialogue.

Examples:

Adverbs:

“There wasn’t any permanent harm done, was there?” asked Frodo anxiously. (The Lord of the Rings, 48)

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently. (Pride and Prejudice, 11)

“We are not in a way to know WHAT Mr. Bingley likes,” said her mother resentfully, “since we are not to visit.” (Pride and Prejudice, 14)

Similarly, prepositional phrase can follow the dialogue tag:

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” (Pride and Prejudice, 11)

One thing to watch out for, if you use British style dialogue tags, is that the more complicated phrases can sound odd because of the unusual word order. The prepositional phrase almost makes it look like a normal sentence, but it’s not quite, since the dialogue tag still follows its own order. This is less of an issue in the American style since the dialogue tag follows the usual word order.

Prefix Tags

In some cases the tag is placed before the dialogue. Note in all such cases I’m aware of the verb follows standard English sentence structure (i.e., no “said Bob”). Also note the use of the colon after the dialogue tag.

Examples:

He paused, and then said slowly in a deep voice: “This is the Master-ring, the One Ring to rule them all. […]” (The Lord of the Rings, 50)

She said: “He’s a cautious one, Jessica.” (Dune, 6)

No Tag

This a quotation with no accompanying dialogue tag. The benefit of this form is that it makes the text flow more smoothly, since it does not interrupt the dialogue with tags. The potential pitfall here is that it may not be obvious who is speaking, or it may cause the speaker to seem like a disembodied voice.

Examples:

“Then what happened after Bilbo escaped from him? Do you know that?” (The Lord of the Rings, 56)

“YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Pride and Prejudice, 11)

“What’s in the box?”

“Pain.” (Dune, 9)

Implied Dialogue

It’s possible to have a dialogue tag where the actual dialogue is implied rather than directly quoted.

Example:

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not. (Pride and Prejudice, 11)

Action Beat

This form tends to be more common in contemporary writing. A dialogue tag can be replaced by an action beat, which is a short sentence that describes an action taken by a character, which is typically representative of either their mood or the action of the situation. Critically, the action beat is its own sentence. Action beats can occur before, after or between fragments of dialogue.

A potential pitfall is to attempt to combine it into the same sentence as the dialogue in a way that implies the use of a non-speech verb (see above). Instead, either split the action into its own sentence (to create an action beat) or keep the tag and add a simultaneous action (see below).

Examples:

Paul sat up, hugged his knees. “What’s a gom jabbar?” (Dune, 6)

Some action beats are more descriptive. For example, in these passages the action beat describes the speaker’s tone or manner of speaking.

Gandalf laughed. “I hope he will. But nobody will read the book, however it ends.” (The Lord of the Rings, 32)

“I asked you a question, Jessica!” The old woman’s voice was snappish, demanding. (Dune, 22)

Tag with Simultaneous Action

If an action is concurrent with the dialogue, it can be stated alongside the dialogue tag.

Examples:

“Who will laugh, I wonder?” said Gandalf, shaking his head. (The Lord of the Rings, 25)

“YOU are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet. (Pride and Prejudice, 19)

Concatenation of Dialogue, Actions

A pattern that has become more common in contemporary writing is the concatenation of several actions and/or dialogue. For example, in the following passage, we have an action (staring) concurrent with internal dialogue, followed by external dialogue.

Example:

The Reverend Mother stared at him, wondering: Did I hear criticism in his voice? “We carry a heavy burden,” she said. (Dune, 12-13)

Other Complex Sentence Structures

Though less common in contemporary writing, it’s worth pointing out that dialogue tags can potentially be involved in other complex sentence structures. Probably best to avoid this form, but it’s worth recognizing that some of the best authors do use it:

Examples:

“Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt ME; […] (Pride and Prejudice, 19)

Thought Bubbles

There is no hard and fast rule for internal dialogue (a.k.a. thought bubbles), but in contemporary writing this is often done with italics. In other respects this follows the form of other dialogue.

Examples:

How could this be a test? he wondered. (Dune, 9)

One odd aspect of internal dialogue is that there is sometimes an interplay between thoughts that are expressed as exposition versus those expressed as dialogue. For example, in the following passage, all sentences represent thoughts at some level, but only one is italicized (and therefore being presented directly as internal dialogue). Note that in the non-italicized text, references to the character’s mother are in the third person.

They spoke truth. His mother had undergone this test. There must be terrible purpose in it … the pain and fear had been terrible. (Dune, 11)

Putting It All Together

Often, it’s best to keep a mix of different forms. This can help to keep the dialogue fresh and to maintain good flow, while inserting just enough tags so that it’s clear who is speaking in each paragraph.

Example:

This passage has a dialogue tag followed by prepositional phrase, tag with implied dialogue, functional tag, action beat (no dialogue), descriptive tag, no tag, and exposition (no dialogue). Also, keep reading in the book for a long section with no tags at all.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

(Pride and Prejudice, 11)

Dialogue Tags by the Numbers

The qualitative analysis above is hopefully sufficient to demonstrate that all of the forms above are used in one way or another somewhere in the writings of famous authors. However, an equally important question is how often? After all, if a form is very rare, one might be better off avoiding it altogether.

I’ve done a (partially automated) analysis of a couple of the texts to determine exactly how often each of the forms is used. Hopefully this helps shed some additional light on exactly how common these forms are.

As above, keep in mind that these results are still specific to a particular author’s style, and possibly genre, time of writing, etc. But I am making the scripts for my analysis available so that others can reproduce my results and even perform the same analysis on their favorite authors or genres.

First up: verbs. What verbs are used and how often?

In order to determine this I performed an analysis to find all verbs used for dialogue tags in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Pride and Prejudice (P&P), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP1), and The President Is Missing (President). I found a total of 67 in LOTR, 19 in P&P and 30 in President. I manually sorted the verbs into categories for basic (i.e., said), functional (11 verbs in LOTR, 10 in P&P, 7 in HP1, 9 in President), and descriptive (55 verbs in LOTR, 7 in P&P, 56 in HP1, 19 in President). Then I performed an analysis to determine how often each of the verbs is used. Totalling these by category we find:

 Count (Percent)
 LOTRP&PHP1President
Basic3487 (75%)302 (50%)715 (77%)464 (83%)
Functional475 (10%)195 (32%)45 (5%)57 (10%)
Descriptive676 (15%)107 (18%)165 (18%)41 (7%)

In case you were wondering what those verbs are, here are the top 10 most used verbs for each category (I skip the basic category below as it only contains a single verb).

Functional:

LOTRP&PHP1President
VerbCt.VerbCt.VerbCt.VerbCt.
answered214replied90asked19asks37
asked166added47told8adds6
thought41continued23added7continues3
added25thought11came4told2
replied8repeated7began4tell2
came6answered6repeated2responds2
began5began5finished1begins2
repeated4adding3  answers2
interrupted3returned2  goes1
continued2repeating1    

Descriptive:

LOTRP&PHP1President
VerbCt.VerbCt.VerbCt.VerbCt.
cried303cried86shouted17whispers13
muttered52observed9whispered13calls4
shouted44exclaimed4snapped12comes3
whispered32called4cried9whispered2
laughed27exclaiming2heard8spits2
called26whispered1yelled7mumbles2
hissed23rejoined1muttered6hisses2
growled21  snarled5agrees2
exclaimed15  growled5yells1
snarled11  called5snaps1

Clearly, Tolkien and Rowling like to use descriptive tags, as there is a wide assortment of verbs in use throughout the text. Austen and Patterson make more minimal use. On the other hand, Tolkien and Austen have robust use of functional tags; this seems to be more minimal in Rowling and Patterson.

What about adverbs? In LOTR, I find 76 adverbs used in 186 dialogue tags; in P&P, 14 adverbs (in 19 dialogue tags); and in HP1, 81 adverbs (in 157 dialogue tags). This makes the use of adverbs much less common than functional or descriptive verbs, but still noticeably prevalent. Interestingly, I was not able to find adverbs in dialogue tags in President at all.

Among Tolkien, Austen and Rowling the ten most common adverbs are:

LOTRP&PHP1
AdverbCountAdverbCountAdverbCount
softly14impatiently3suddenly10
quietly13warmly2quietly7
suddenly10drily2quickly6
sadly10stoutly1loudly6
slowly9resentfully1finally6
sternly8melancholy1coldly4
grimly7immediately1sleepily3
sharply6hastily1shortly3
gloomily5gravely1miserably3
eagerly5coolly1irritably3

What about different styles of tags? Standard tag (i.e., in suffix position) vs ones with adverbs vs prefix tags vs no tag, etc. This analysis is harder due to the sheer number of variations, but I was able to get some numbers. Note I don’t report any numbers for tags with simultaneous actions below, since it is challenging to track these with a fully automated analysis.

 Count (Percent)
 LOTRP&PHP1President
Standard Tag4450 (83%)458 (37%)714 (48%)532 (29%)
Tag with Adverb188 (3%)19 (2%)157 (10%)0 (0%)
Prefix Tag138 (3%)127 (10%)54 (4%)30 (2%)
No Tag511 (9%)633 (51%)491 (33%)882 (48%)
Action Beat93 (2%)12 (1%)81 (5%)385 (21%)

This table is interesting because there is a striking difference between the different authors. Tolkien by far prefers standard tags, followed by a much smaller uses of the others. Austen prefers no tag, followed by standard tags, with a smaller amount of prefix tags, and almost none of the other forms. Rowling prefers standard, then no tag, with smaller amounts of the others. Patterson prefers no tag, then standard, then action beats.

Unfortunately this analysis isn’t able to reveal why these authors vary so substantially. Differences could be attributed to genre, time period, author’s personal style, or something else I haven’t thought of. Without more data it’s impossible to say. But at the least this analysis demonstrates that there is substantial variation among authors who are widely considered to be successful.

Analysis Methodology and Replication

If you’re interesting in replicating the analysis above, or want to perform it on a new book, I have made an open source release with the scripts used in creating this study, along with instructions for replicating my results. Please see the link below and submit an issue if you run into any trouble with the instructions:

https://bitbucket.org/elliottslaughter/dialogue-tags

Why I Did This Study

In case you’re wondering what prompted me to do this study, I’m working on a science fiction novel series called The Exander Project—where I use British style dialogue tags, and a mix of (mostly) standard tags, no tag, and action beats.