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Is it time to rethink dialogue tags?



Someone close to me is the product of an expensive private education, a university graduate, with a well-enunciated RP accent and a healthy respect for the English language. She is in her mid-thirties and understands speech tags. But she never uses he said, she says in conversation. Neither do her friends. And they are clearly not an isolated group.

Instead of 'he said, she says' etc. What they say is 'he's like, she's like.'  From my perspective this is very much a generational thing born of Australian soap operas and social media, not a matter of class.

If a writer were to faithfully record someone adopting this idiom, they are faced with an interesting dilemma. Do they mix their speech tag styles, as in: She turned to me and said, 'And then he's like, "I don't care," and she's like "but you should" and walked away.' Or keep the tags consistent and fail to report the speech faithfully, as in: She turned to me and said, 'And then he said, "I don't care," and she said, "but you should" and walked away.'

Perhaps we should defer the decision until we discover whether this is a permanent feature of our language or a passing phase. When I wrote The Bethnal Green Book of the Dead I ducked the issue by omitting dialogue tags entirely. Not sure anyone even noticed.


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