Monday, September 7, 2009

Quibbling Over a Comma

Speaker attributes tell the reader who is speaking. Some writers believe that readers often skip over the word said, seeing it briefly only to ignore it. Others try to avoid speaker attributes as much as possible. Some writers like to use speaker attributes to indicate how a person said something. Rather than just, “he said,” such an author might write, “he whispered” or “he shouted.” Some writers will extend this and write such things as “he laughed” or “he smiled” in their place, but some writers and editors will strike out these statements, saying that laughing is not a way of talking, so it should not be included as a speaker attribute. They would prefer, “he said as he laughed,” or something like that. The writers who would strike out speaker attributes all together would likely tell us that we should replace speaker attributes with an action beat. Instead of the following:
"Fascinating," he said as he walked through the door.
They would have us write:
"Fascinating." He walked through the door.
If you notice the pattern of the quote followed by an action beat, it looks very much like:
"Fascinating." He laughed.
Compare that to:
"Fascinating," he laughed.
My point is that the difference between a quote followed by an action beat and a quote followed by an incorrectly formed speaker attribute is only a comma. Now, my preference is that writers don't go and replace "he said" with "he laughed," "he snorted," "he joked" and the like just to add variety, but it seems to me that their readers understand what they mean. When we consider that action beat writers are doing something similar, only after a period instead of a comma, I can't help but wonder if this is worth quibbling about and yet it is a topic that will make some writers very angry. He sighs heavily. "That is the nature of art, I suppose."