What did you say?


Readers Bill and Julie noticed a language trend that’s rubbing them the wrong way.

“One of our pet peeves is the evolving usage of ‘said’ instead of ‘asked’ immediately preceding the utterance of a question.” Here’s an example they offered: “He said, ‘Where are you going?’”

“We are hearing this more and more often in everyday conversations involving questions, in TV advertisements and on social media,” Bill and Julie wrote. “Do you have any idea why? Is it because ‘said’ is easier to pronounce than the tongue twister ‘asked’? We were taught one shouldn't say a question. A question should always be asked.”

It’s an interesting observation, and it touches on an important subject for writers: speech tags.

When people are talking about writing, a speech tag is something like “Ben said” or “Ashley asked” or “they screamed” attached to the thing they said or asked or screamed. In linguistics, speech tagging is something else entirely. It’s a process for categorizing words in a corpus, which is a large collection of written works and transcribed speech that researchers use for reference. If you want to know how often “walking” is used as a verb as opposed to how often it’s used adjectivally, as in “a walking stick” or “my walking route,” you check a corpus and reap the benefits of someone before you having tagged instances of “walking” as either verbs or modifiers. This kind of speech tagging is jargon used mainly by linguists.

In the writing world, I hear the term “speech tag” mostly among fiction editors and writers, while we on the newswriting side often use the broader term “quotation attribution.” Either term offers a handy way to talk about those little clauses that attribute words to a speaker.

“It’s mine,” he said.

“It’s mine!” he screamed.

“It’s mine,” he hissed.

“It’s mine,” he enthused.

“It’s mine,” he chirped.

As you can see, speech tags have tremendous power to convey what’s going on in a scene. A character who calmly states that something belongs to him is very different from a character who screams, “It’s mine!”

Considering the power of creative, descriptive speech tags, you’d think that writing experts would be big fans. Au contraire. “He hissed,” “he chirped,” “he enthused” and similar tags are considered amateurish by many professional editors and writing experts. They’re a crutch -- a way to slip in something that should have been made clear through action or scene-setting. For example, the best way to show that a character is menacing isn’t to describe his speech as a hiss. It’s to have a gun in his hand or a vein bulging in his forehead or blood dripping from his chainsaw -- hard facts instead of descriptive speech tags.

My personal peeve is “enthuse." Technically, “enthuse” is an intransitive verb, not a transitive one. That means it doesn’t take a direct object. You can enthuse, but you can’t enthuse something. That’s my excuse for chopping “enthuse” out of every speech tag I find it in. But the truth is that “enthuse” sounds cheesy to me.  

Most editors I know agree that “said” is usually the best choice for statements. It’s simple and factual, and it doesn’t distract readers from the rest of the sentence.

Getting back to Bill and Julie’s question: Is “asked” better than “said” in a speech tag for a question? I haven’t surveyed editors or researched literature on this matter, so it’s only with 100 percent certainty that I say: Yes, “asked” is better.

Why? Because in writing, specificity is a virtue. “Asked” is more specific than “said.” It narrows down a wide range of possible utterances to a specific type utterance: a question.

Unlike Bill and Julie, I haven’t noticed a lot of people using “said” in place of “asked.” So I don’t know that it’s a trend or, if so, what’s causing it. But I agree that questions are better asked than said.

- June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.