Invisible Verb

I’ve noticed an odd construction that some writers use – and I’ve even used it myself from time to time, accidentally or when writing a pastiche of Victorian or period prose.

Now, in the normal run of things, the order of a sentence is: Subject, verb, object… etc.

You would write: ‘Jane ran down the hill’, and not: “Ran Jane down the hill’.

However, when it comes to writing dialogue, it’s surprising how often some writers, for whatever reasons, ignore this rule. Open a novel, scan a page of dialogue, and I bet that within a few seconds you’ll come across a line written something like this:

“Get away!” said Jane.

‘Said’ Jane?

I collaborate with various writers from time to time, and one good friend uses this verb-subject construction a lot. (I change it around when he’s not looking…)

As has been noticed by commentators, ‘said’ is an invisible verb – the eye glides over it when reading dialogue, though the brain takes it in, almost subliminally. That’s why we get away with using the inversion, without it seeming an anachronism.

The exception to this is if we use the inversion while writing first person dialogue. It becomes glaring, like this:

“Get away!” said I.

Instantly, this construction is jarring, and brings to mind Victorian construction, when such a line was frequently used.

So, as a rule – unless writing in a period style when I want to draw attention to the inversion – I try not to use the verb-subject construction when writing dialogue. Of course, there are times when I break the rule inadvertently and, much later if rereading my work (which I try not to do) wince when I find an example.


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One response to “Invisible Verb

  1. Hi Eric,
    Sorry. Just catching up with your blog posts.
    Believe it or not I don’t have a problem with this inversion – except of course for “said I” – as I suspect there may be a bit more to it than simple grammar. My first thought was that there is a sense in which the piece of dialogue is actually the subject of the verb but a moment’s reflection told me that it really isn’t.
    What it is though, is that the formulation, “Phrase X,” said Y, perhaps serves to emphasise what was said whereas, “Phrase X,” Y said, maybe places more stress on who said it.
    In any case what is vital is to avoid a whole list of dialogue each piece of which is followed by Y said or W said (or indeed said Y or said W) as the eye certainly doesn’t skip over that.

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