Writing tip: pronunciation verbs

Josie shook her head, “It will never work.”

“I can’t believe that worked,” Ben laughed.

Miss Gilmore woke them up with a yell, “It’s time to get up!”

“What the heck is an expression verb?” Maria asked.

In the sentences above, the phrase “Mary asked” is often called a tag. The phrases “Josie shook her head” and “Ben chuckled” may be called labels, but they should also be called incorrect. More precisely, the phrases themselves are fine, but you need to correct the punctuation that triggers them. You may see why right away, but such a misunderstanding of expression verbs in dialogue is probably among the top three mistakes I see in the work of new fiction writers, and often established authors as well.

Sure, I’m talking (in most cases) about the difference between a comma and a period. If you squint, you’ve fixed it. But how many times have I said that an aura of professionalism can be the difference, for agents and publishers, between wanting to work with you and considering yourself a hobbyist? And this is one of those common, easy-to-correct spelling mistakes that can, if spread throughout a manuscript, scream “amateur.”

Dialog tags in general should be used with caution; it is painful to read a long passage of dialogue between two characters in which each quotation mark is followed by “said” or “asked”. Try to use them only when necessary to clarify the identity of the speaker or when they serve a significant purpose, in which case “said” and “asked” should rarely appear, unless they are followed by an adverb you cannot live without ( I said emphatically).

When using tags, think about them as carefully as the words in quotes. Many verbs shouldn’t be used as expression verbs, but that doesn’t mean you have a small selection to choose from. A character can yell, whisper, howl, spit, or mutter a prayer … but cannot laugh a sentence. (See example two above). Use that simple test if you are not sure.

As always, there are gray areas. I say you can’t “laugh” in a sentence, but some perfectly good writers can get stubborn on me and insist you do. Another test is to simply look in your dictionary and see if the verb is transitive or intransitive (that is, if it takes a direct object or not). Webster says “laughs” is intransitive, so I’m right. Ha ha. On the other hand, Webster says that “laugh” can be transitive and, specifically, is a verb of expression. Why can I giggle a sentence but not laugh a sentence? Without explanation.

But I’m mainly referring to simpler examples, like the first and third above. Your character definitely can’t shake his head a sentence. And in the third example, “woke up” is the verb and “shout” is a noun. Miss Gilmore didn’t wake up her words, she woke people up. Scan your manuscript and I guarantee you’ll swap at least a few commas for periods, and then you’ll look like a more polished professional writer.

If you want to play with language and make your character chuckle, go for it. The grammar police may or may not catch you. But always keep in mind how you’re using the labels – most writers are so focused on the dialogue itself that they get lazy after that final quote. Think before you write (hey, I like that) and know why you are putting that word and that punctuation on the page.

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