Dialogue Tags and Education

Well, we’ve had a few ranty blog posts recently, and I’m a little over them, so let’s get down to business with something a little more on the ‘craft’ side of things.

Let’s talk about dialogue tags.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from tutoring, it’s that primary and high school teachers don’t always see eye to eye with writers on the Internet about dialogue tags. For a while, I was on Pinterest being subtly horrified at it every time it told me that it had picked a “Said is Dead” chart for my viewing pleasure because WHO USES THOSE ANYMORE? I had one in my Year 1 classroom; surely things have changed since then!
Of course, two of my tutoring students promptly brought those charts to their next lessons with me, and that’s when I realised how big a foot I was potentially shoving into my mouth with all my rambling about ‘efficient language’ and ‘don’t use a long word, use the right word”.

To be fair, at a primary school level, and to some level at a high school level, there is an excellent reason to enforce rules like this: Vocabulary. Primary school is a place where it’s important to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible, because the more time you have to get acclimated to words, the more you’ll be able to use them effectively later. It takes a while of usage and misusage to really understand connotation, after all.

That being said, there is a huge problem with this, and that is the necessity of un-teaching it later, which just seems a really unintuitive way to go about things. It’s one thing to present a simplified version of the truth to get students to come to grips with a concept before you start bombarding them with caveats and exceptions, but it’s entirely another to have to do a complete one-eighty halfway through their schooling life. They do this with essays as well (or, at least, they did at my school) – they give you a very strict structure for how you write an essay or text response (introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion, TEEL paragraph structure etc.), and then suddenly in Year 10, they tell you to write an essay without that structure because that structure is so last year.
As a result, a significant number of people in year 10 suddenly have their essay grades plummet, because there’s been no lead-up to this change, no indication that their paragraph structure will ever fail them, and thus no reason to look at important things like the reason behind that structure, or the ways in which it works and doesn’t work. Unless you’re an English nerd – in fact, the only people who survived that transition unscathed were the ones who were experimenting with the structure before this change was announced.

Vocabulary is much the same – somewhere between high school and university, the metric changes on you, but nobody will ever tell you why. It’s actually really simple: the world goes from measuring how many words you know to measuring how efficiently and precisely you can use those words. That’s all it is. But because it’s such a change from how schools teach language use, people are blindsided by it. Some never even realise the change has taken place, because it’s so easy to conflate large vocabulary with intelligence (if someone uses an uncommon word because it’s the precise one that’s needed, it’s simple to just take away that they sounded intelligent because they used an uncommon word, especially if you’ve had it pounded into your head for upwards of ten years that good English students use uncommon words).

The other problem with the approach is that teaching and then de-teaching something is unnecessarily complicated. If you teach someone something, going back and then saying “that’s untrue” results only in confusion. You’ve taught a frame of reference and then you have to remove it and replace it with an unfamiliar one years down the track.
This is the intellectual equivalent of building a house on a concrete foundation, then getting partway through the building process, realising you’d like a reinforced concrete foundation instead, then having to somehow tear up the concrete, either reinforce the concrete you have or replace the concrete with reinforced concrete without actually damaging the house. It’s ludicrous.

Dialogue tags suffer most from this in fiction writing, I think, because they’re such tricksy goblins to begin with. They’re delicate things that perform a few very specific functions, but they do happen to be able to be loaded down with a plethora of self-important verbs, delicious adverbs and oooo, a nice selection of subclauses for after! And it’s very difficult to tell someone how and where they’ve used a dialogue tag badly because chances are you can use that exact construction well.

But … well, I said I wouldn’t rant, but here we are, a good thousand words or so into the piece and I’ve not said a thing about writing craft.
I’ll split this into two, then – first, the rant on the state of schooling (can’t promise that topic won’t come up again, by the way), and then the explanation of how dialogue tags ought to work.
Hopefully I can make the dry grammar stuff as interesting as working myself into a frothing rage over the education system.

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