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He Said, She Said

How to use attributives

By
Sal Glynn, read by Mignon Fogarty,
July 25, 2008
Episode #120

Page 1 of 2

attributives

Today’s topic is “How to Use Attributives”

Guest writer Sal Glynn writes:

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?

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