Grammar dialogue tags - Said Harry Potter – Harry Potter Said

How do you use dialogue tags?

Dialogue tags must be the most written about and discussed structure in a writer’s grammatical toolbox. One that I haven’t mentioned before as I didn’t want to join the long and probably never ending debate.

However, after getting close to finishing reading the third Harry Potter book, (yes I know I’m a bit late in doing so) I just can’t keep my opinion quiet any longer. I am also readying myself for brutal Vandal reader disagreement here, but I just don’t like dialogue tags with the verb before the subject, which J.K. uses almost without fail. Except when she can’t.

‘Let’s go,’ said Harry. Now grammatically and stylistically correct. But as an old English teacher, it grates on me. ‘Let’s go,’ Harry said. Now that makes me feel much better.

In my mind, a verb before a subject is used to form a question.

‘Said who?’ Harry asked, or asked Harry.
‘She did,’ said she.

Oh dear, this one can’t be inverted. Said she is a no no. So why is said Harry correct, but it becomes incorrect with a pronoun. Well, because it’s just like that, that’s why. Maybe it’s just me, but I like reading books that use subject – verb tags. Easier on the eye or something. ‘All right, enough said. Said enough,’ I said.

Except for adverbs!

Now I know they are considered a definite no-no in dialogue tags, but from time to time I like them. (Sorry Stephen King. I know what you’d say.) I know that ‘she said smilingly’ would get any editor’s red pen in a microsecond and rightly so but just from time to time I like them. If only to break up the ‘he said, she said’ pattern.

‘I have you now my little princess,’ he said wickedly. Then drove the dagger through her heart.

‘I like that!’ I said proudly.

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23 thoughts on “Said Harry Potter – Harry Potter Said

  • 04/07/2011 at 4:28 pm
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    He said, said he. Malcolm said – all show a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. Sometimes dialogue between protagonists minus dialogue tags works far better.

    "Got the goods," Malcolm asked as he grew angry.
    "No – want to make something of it?"
    "Cool down," Malcolm replied as anger was replaced by reason.

    Etc, etc

    You know what I mean Derek. :)

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  • 04/07/2011 at 4:34 pm
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    Even easier with a two character dialogue Jack. You can drop them altogether!

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  • 04/07/2011 at 4:37 pm
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    I'm almost wishing that I hadn't read this article, Derek. Up until a few minutes ago I wasn't aware that there were any rules about it. I generally use whatever form sounds best at the time. And I say 'sounds' because when I'm unsure I'll read it back aloud so I can see which makes me cringe the least.

    To +1 Jack there, often it is better to not use any tags.

    Thanks for giving me something to 2nd guess myself with, Derek. Ignorance used to be such bliss. :-)

    Kind regards,
    Steve

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  • 04/07/2011 at 4:58 pm
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    I think it's more about style. I didn't notice anything out of order while reading the HP books, but now when I think about it, it gives it a different vibe to the text, and I think it serves well the books. Wouldn't want anyone to change it in HP series.

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  • 04/07/2011 at 8:37 pm
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    Well, she has a billion dollars in her pocket and what do we have… A rule that's broken all the time. Yes, we can look at the correct way to write. But, remember the rules are made to be broken from time to time. Derek great post. I love reading them!

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  • 04/07/2011 at 8:51 pm
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    Very valid argument John. A billion beats my English teacher's hourly rate. lol But, I like being a grammar stickler and word nerd. However, I could change my mind for half a mil! lol

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  • 05/07/2011 at 11:09 am
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    Said she, said he, said I etc. are used a lot over here in Ireland. It's a colloquialism often used in dialogue and can work well in dialogue tags to give an "Irish" flavour.

    Derek said, "I hate this construction. It makes my teeth ache."

    "You're lucky," says I, "I don't have any teeth."

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  • 05/07/2011 at 11:18 am
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    Excellent points! I get irritated with the "he said, she said" but I do need indicators on who's saying what. With a page of dialogue and few tags as to which character is making the retort, I get lost.

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  • 05/07/2011 at 11:35 am
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    The alternate to dialogue tags are dialogue beats, which are better anyway. Beats are the action that happens between dialogue – what the characters are doing. If you use a beat, there is no need for a tag.

    'I don't know.' Astarl spun the dagger across her knuckles. 'What do you think?'

    This is a beat. You can eliminate the whole 'he said, she said' thing by doing this. Show don't tell.

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  • 05/07/2011 at 12:01 pm
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    I guess that Ms Rowling is of the view that style beats rules. "Let's go," said Harry, for example, is more pleasing to the ear. As for adverbs, I'm with Stephen King there. You don't need to add "wickedly" when a character is gloating over plunging a dagger in someone's heart!

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  • 06/07/2011 at 9:48 pm
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    Ahh, tags. Adverbs in tags. Rules. Rules. Rules.

    Really wish I could break out in song, “Signs, signs everywhere there’s signs saying do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?”

    This song is so appropriate for writing. There are a thousand “how-to-write” blogs out there, and a thousand more “how-not-to-write”. Everyone has their own style or complaint as to why they use a tag or want to use an adverb and as long as you use them sparingly–yes I added that on purpose–I think it’s okay. If your writing becomes formulaic and predictible then it also becomes boring.

    Knowing and understanding the rules of tags and adverbs empowers us to use them at just the right moment. (My personal preference is to avoid tags and adverbs as much as possible).

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  • 08/07/2011 at 3:25 pm
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    After looking more deeply into the matter, apparently it’s the old school way to do it in UK.

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  • 30/08/2011 at 11:50 pm
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    I never noticed the tags in the Harry Potter books, although I did notice the adverbs. Not when I was reading, but when I listened to them later on CDs. I wonder if Jim Dale got annoyed when he was reading them all aloud. I imagine him saying, “If she left all the ‘angrily’ and ‘petulantly’ and ‘irritatingly’ out of here, this book would be three hundred pages shorter!

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    • 31/08/2011 at 10:53 am
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      I love adverbs Beth. They aren’t in our language for nothing! But perhaps in moderation.

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  • 31/08/2011 at 12:16 am
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    When I was a little bitty brand-new writer, I thought that using the word “said” all the time was the sign of bad writing. :p I didn’t know that it was actually preferred over superfluous adverbs and adjectives. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that, actually. :p

    That said, it does get tedious after awhile, so breaking it up every so often is a good thing, as long as it’s not done too much.

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    • 31/08/2011 at 10:55 am
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      They can get boring Lauren. I like dialogue with only two people. Then you don’t have to bother using dialogue tags at all! Neat and tidy and very economical.

      So just avoid 3 and 4 way dialogue and all is well.

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  • 16/11/2011 at 3:45 pm
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    I just found this post. I’m so thrilled someone (other than myself) was annoyed with Rowling’s verb/subject dialogue tags. Of course, they set a different tone for the writing, and I suppose it’s her prerogative.

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  • 16/11/2011 at 4:35 pm
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    Hmm. Sort of agree, Derek. I think JK’s style is from an earlier age – more Victorian or Edwardian – and I reckon it works very well for her stories.

    On the ‘he said/she said’ I do agree, but quite often I have three or four folks involved in a chat, and then you do need to break things up a little. Adverbs are find on occasion, but can get clunky. ‘Said’ is OK, but so is ‘grunted’, ‘swore’, ‘hissed’, and any number of alternatives. I’m happy to get an extra clue about someone’s mood in the way they speak. But only as an addition in case ‘said’ just gets a little tedious!

    At the end of the day we have to write in the way that feels right to us, don’t we?

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    • 16/11/2011 at 7:42 pm
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      I agree Michael. It’s more about style than hard and fast rules. Most writers know when a text becomes repetitive and boring, but what is important is whether they have the structural tools in their kit to change this. I strongly believe that although grammar may be a little unfashionable, a good knowledge can help overcome these problems.

      There are many grammatical options available in English to handle dialogue, and brushing up on these elements would be well worthwhile for some writers new to the profession.

      Reply
  • 16/11/2011 at 6:08 pm
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    When I first started writing stories, I used ‘ “Let’s go,” said Harry.’
    This was even after reading Stephen King’s and a number of other books on writing.
    I was surprised to notice, when I started studying how published authors wrote, that most /all of them write …. Harry said.
    I don’t know where I got the ‘said Harry’ but it sounds better to me.
    Anyway… I have continued studying the way published authors write, and I note that it is in beats, as Ciarra mentions, as well as with ‘said, grunted, swore and hissed as Michael suggests and with or without adverbs.
    I am a little disgusted at the ‘rules’; no one seems to follow them. What does that say about the rules? And yet it holds new writers back.
    It’s as if you must get through the ‘Level of the Rules’ and discover for yourself that (at least some) ‘successful’ writers don’t follow them, before you can continue getting better yourself.
    If you stick to he said/she said in writing, it’s boring, uninformative and holds back the progress of the story. I know, b/c I’ve done it. But not anymore.
    My writing is now coming into line with writers I like. I’ll go back and read Stephen King some more b/c I think he knows what he’s talking about.
    And I’ll avoid writing like some writers who snarl angrily, pout petulantly or grind their teeth irritatingly.
    I think some very popular writerrs have succeeded not b/c of their writing skill, but b/c of their great stories and story telling.
    That said, I have read/am pushing myself through, some writers who are lauded for good writing style, but take 1000 words when 1 would do.
    No one is friends with everyone.
    No writer can please everyone.
    We all have to find the best way of telling our stories and hope some people will like them.
    Good luck and good writing. : )

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  • 16/11/2011 at 7:35 pm
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    They say, ‘never follow the pack’ Louise. So while I agree there are some general ground rules, I don’t think there is a set of laws governing writing. Heaven forbid if there were as it would be oh so receptive and boring.

    A lot of the discussion among the purists revolves around these dialogue tags, which I find a bit of a nonsense. Using only ‘said’ and avoiding using any adverbs becomes sterile and boring. In either order. I must admit that while I really enjoyed reading a few Harry Potter books, the repetitive use of ‘said Harry’ drove me insane. Especially when it was only a two person dialogue. The tags could have been dispensed with in this case.

    The adverb argument is slightly different. ‘He said angrily’ is fine in moderation, but. ‘He said as he hit her over the head with a heavy cast iron frying pan’, would in my mind improve the story for the reader.

    In the end it’s about finding your writing ‘voice’ and this is certainly not going to be achieved by following all the rules.

    Good luck!

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  • 18/07/2017 at 11:23 pm
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    I think you’d find more British and Australian writers using the “verb-subject” grammar tags than Americans – we Americans just simply don’t talk that way. However, in this global age we live in, it’s good to know what grates on certain ears and what doesn’t.

    Reply

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