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How to Use Attributives

By Mignon Fogarty

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.

What about using words such as grunted and cooed instead of said?

Simplicity is the rule in attributives. Many writers try to think for the reader by replacing “said” with words like gruntedgrowleddemandedbellowedcooedroaredsqualled, and simpered. If the tone of the dialogue is not immediately apparent, rewrite the dialogue and not the attributive. . . .

Continue reading about writing dialogue over at www.QuickAndDirtyTips.com


avatar-faceMignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips.

Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

Follow Mignon on Twitter and Facebook | Subscribe to her podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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