Attributive Verbs & Adorning "Said"

"Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying."


By Matt Hart

The other day I ran across a few sources instructing on the proper way to attribute a quote and what not to do with "said." I found them helpful, so for my fellow writers out there, I pulled them together for you below. The first was from a book about Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker magazine, called Genius in Disguise. In the back pages the author, Thomas Kunkel, included a few helpful appendices, including "The New Yorker Prospectus" and a "Ross Query Sheet." The most helpful for me, however, was the "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker articles," which I've excerpted below here:

This was written by Wolcott Gibbs around 1937, apparently at the request of Katharine White, who was then trying out a succession of new fiction editors. Though it has passed into New Yorker legend, "Theory and Practice" was a working document and fairly reflected the magazine's guidelines and tastes of the time.

The word "said" is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting "grunted," "snorted," etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.

In 2001, American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) wrote a piece in The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing, which he then expanded into a short book called Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.
Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Curious, I then check my copy of Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, to see if she says anything about said usage. But, with no index and no memory of her covering this topic, I then moved on to the classic Elements of Style, by Strunk and White and found the following gem...

Do not explain too much.

It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.” Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributes with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.