He Said/She Said: Why Attribution Matters

I have not seen this movie and have no idea what it’s about, but hey, Kevin Bacon!

Readers have a problem: they cannot read your mind.

For the most part, this is to the authors’ benefit. You get to write it all down, instead of people just downloading the story directly from your creative little noggin (*note: that’s a terrifying sci-fi idea, actually…). I imagine that whole readers-aren’t-mind-readers thing has proved quite lucrative for George R.R. Martin lately, else everyone would know that he was planning to off somebody long before they got too attached.

But it can also lead to problems. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of mind-reading foul-ups involving attribution.

Attribution is quite simply “who said that thing.”

Now I come from a journalism background, and it’s quite important that everything is said by somebody; you can’t just go bandying about quotes without giving the reader context, and you’ll get quite the wrist slap if you try (regardless of what you think of “the media,” there are certain standards).

And yet somewhere in your English education, someone probably told you that it’s ok to not always put a “said” at the end of every quote–it can get a bit tiring. That is entirely true! However–you can go too far. You have to have at least some attribution, because the reader cannot read your mind and it’s tricky to follow a conversation when you can’t tell who is speaking.

For example:

Suzy, Jaime, Bob, and Fernando were talking at recess. Suzy heard an ice cream truck. “Hey, you want to go get an ice cream?”

“I’d love ice cream!”

Sullenly, Bob stared at the ground. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Fernando started laughing.

“You can’t have ice cream!” he teased.

“Don’t you like ice cream?” Then she walked toward the ice cream truck.

So I just made up this lovely little ice cream vignette, but I’ve seen this kind of passage written a lot. Let’s dissect it. Who is speaking first? We can guess that Suzy is the one who asks about the ice cream truck, but we aren’t sure. Still, it’s a reasonable guess because she was mentioned in the line before–but keep that uncertainty in mind.

Who loves ice cream? Is it Suzy? Is it one of the boys? No idea. No way to know, either.

It’s probably not Bob. Poor Bob, he’s staring sullenly at the ground. We can be pretty danged sure that Bob made the statement, because he is talked about in the sentence prior AND because the statement goes with the feeling expressed pretty clearly. Unlike the uncertainty with Suzy’s question, we can reasonably pair these two together. So that’s good.

Who asked “Why not?” Also, is Fernando the one teasing Bob? It’s likely, because he started laughing, but we have a large group here, so it’s possible that one of the other boys is teasing Bob AND that Fernando is laughing. It’s ambiguous.

And then we have the question at the end. The writer clearly wants us to know that Suzy said it, because of the “she” in the statement, but it feels disjointed. This could be clearer for the reader, because someone else could be saying this and then Suzy could walk. It’s hard to tell.

Let’s try again, with attribution in the right spots:

Suzy, Jaime, Bob, and Fernando were talking at recess. Suzy heard an ice cream truck. “Hey, you want to go get an ice cream?” she asked the boys.

“I’d love ice cream!” Jaime said.

Sullenly, Bob stared at the ground. “I can’t.”

Looking at his friend with concern, Jaime said, “Why not?”

Fernando started laughing. “You can’t have ice cream!” he teased.

“Don’t you like ice cream?” Suzy asked. Then she walked toward the ice cream truck.

Now we have a much clearer picture of the action here. Fernando is kinda a bully, Jaime is rather exuberant, and Suzy just wants an ice cream already.  Notice that not all of the attributions are the same; it doesn’t get boring to have to read them. In fact, you probably slid right over them without much notice. (This is also why “said” is the preferred unobtrusive attribution. It’s very utilitarian.)

If you aren’t sure if you need attribution or not, try reading your section as if you were a reader and knew nothing about the story–just going off the attribution. If you have a long back-and-forth without attribution, odds are good you’ll need to add some to avoid confusion. (It can be done, but in very rare and unusual circumstances).

Of course, if you’re really not sure, you can always hire an editor to help you straighten it out.


Filed under Editing, writing

2 responses to “He Said/She Said: Why Attribution Matters

  1. I must admit that I went into this article thinking that I already knew how to avoid this sort of problem….and then I realized that I use “he” or “she” far too often when distinguishing between speakers. Thank you for this post; I’ll remember to look out for this sort of thing from now on.

    • I’m so glad I was able to help! “He said” and “she said” are the attribution workhorses, and will always be useful, but it’s so important to make sure your friendly reader can follow the flow!

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