Josie shook her head, “It will never work.”
“I can’t believe that actually worked,” Ben chuckled.
Miss Gilmore woke them with a shout, “It’s time to get up!”
“What the heck is a verb of utterance?” Maria asked.
In the sentences above, the phrase “Maria asked” would often be referred to as a tag. The phrases “Josie shook her head” and “Ben chuckled” might be referred to as tags, but they should also be referred to as wrong. More precisely, the phrases themselves are fine, but the punctuation setting off those phrases needs fixing. You may see the reason immediately, but such misunderstanding of verbs of utterance in dialogue is probably among the top three mistakes I see in work by new fiction writers–and often by established authors, too.
Sure, I’m talking (in most cases) about the difference between a comma and a period. If you squint you’ve fixed it. But how many times have I said that an aura of professionalism can be the difference, for agents and editors, between wanting to work with you and considering you an amateur? And this is one of those massively easy-to-fix commonplace writing mistakes that can, if peppered throughout a manuscript, scream “amateur.”
Dialogue tags in general should be used with caution; it’s painful to read a long passage of staccato dialogue between two characters in which every quotation mark is followed by “said” or “asked.” Try to use them only when necessary to make the speaker’s identity clear or when they serve a meaningful purpose, in which case “said” and “asked” should rarely appear, unless they’re followed by an adverb you cannot live without (I said emphatically).
When using tags, think as carefully about them as you do the words between the quotation marks. A lot of verbs shouldn’t be used as verbs of utterance, but that doesn’t mean you have a tiny selection to choose from. A character can shout, whisper, bellow, spit, or mutter a sentence… but they can’t chuckle a sentence. (See example two above.) Use that simple test if you’re unsure.
As always, gray areas exist. I say you can’t “chuckle” a sentence, but some perfectly fine writers might get all stubborn on me and insist you can. Another test is simply to look in your dictionary and see if the verb is transitive or intransitive (i.e., whether it takes a direct object or not). Webster’s says “chuckle” is intransitive, so I’m right. Ha ha. Then again, Webster’s says “giggle” can be transitive and, specifically, is a verb of utterance. Why can I giggle a sentence but not chuckle a sentence? No explanation.
But I’m talking mainly about more straightforward examples, such as the first and third ones above. Your character definitely can’t shake her head a sentence. And in the third example, “woke” is the verb and “shout” is a noun. Miss Gilmore didn’t wake her words, she woke people. Scan your manuscript and I guarantee you’ll change at least a few commas to periods, and you will then come across as a more polished, professional writer.
If you want to play around with the language and have your character chuckle a comment, go for it. The grammar police may or may not catch you. But always be aware of how you’re using tags–most writers are so focused on the dialogue itself that they get lazy after that end quote. Think before you ink (hey, I like that) and know why you’re putting that word and that punctuation on the page.