Monday, April 15, 2024

Part V of ProWritingAid and AutoCrit

 False Positives

So now we get to the topic I started this rant to address. False positives, today in Dialogue Tags (also known as Speech Tags).

Aside: I hope your income tax obligations are met, except here in Massachusetts, and in Maine, where you have til the 17th, (Monday is Patriots Day (and Emancipation Day) and the running of the Boston Marathon.)

Speech tags.

You would be forgiven if you searched for “define speech tags” and came away thinking they’re mostly what you want them to be. For example:

From Scribophile:
“Quick definition: a dialog tag is a short phrase that identifies the character who’s speaking.”
"[Q: ]What are dialogue tags?
[A: ]Dialogue tags (or speech tags) are short phrases that identify the speaker of a line of dialogue. They can occur before, during, or after a character’s spoken dialogue. They’re used to make it clear who’s speaking and help the reader follow the conversation. The most common dialogue tag in writing is ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.”

Not much of a definition there, to be honest. However, also from Scribophile comes a distinction that I knew but wouldn’t have thought of, and I’m not sure the guru’s at PWA andAutoCrit have considered just yet: Dialog tags are not the same as Action Tags, though the two serve many of the same purposes.

“Always begin dialogue tags with a lowercase letter, even after question marks and exclamation points.”
example: “I love this song,” she said.
Unless of course the tag begins with a proper noun, such as Charlotte. Those are always capitalized!
example: “I love this song,” Charlotte said.

However, if you follow the line of dialogue with an action that is separate from the speech, you’ll end the dialogue with a period and begin the next bit with a capital letter, the same as if you didn’t use any tag at all:
example: “I love this song.” She reached over and turned up the volume.

The first letter of an action tag is always capitalized. (Emphasis mine)

Scribophile goes a bit further in defining these two (again, emphasis mine):

Dialogue tags, as we’ve seen, begin with a speech verb—usually “said,” but sometimes other words like “whispered,” “yelled,” or “mumbled.” They work to identify the person who is speaking.

Finally, we get to a defining characteristic: Dialogue tags begin with a speech verb.

Action tags, on the other hand, work like a dialogue tag but aren’t directly connected to the line of dialogue. They can be related, but they stand independently. Just like dialogue tags, action tags work to identify the person speaking. These are especially helpful if you’re writing a scene with three or more people, where things can get confusing pretty quickly.

To clarify, in case you’re wondering, neither PWA nor AutoCrit identify action tags. They both do an acceptable job of picking out 'said' and 'asked', though you should still review those lists.

Where they both fall short is what PWA calls “Unusual dialog tags” and AutoCrit calls “Others”. Both are predicated on the belief that said and asked are the only acceptable dialog tags, or even if they admit others might be acceptable, they’re still to be minimized. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but they pick words that perhaps due to their location, or perhaps because they appear in a list of suspect words, are identified as dialog tags even though (in many cases) they can’t be (because they aren’t speech verbs).

Looking for Rules? Scribophile gives you five:
1. Limit overuse of dialogue tags. Less is more.
2. Use a dialogue tag when it’s unclear who’s speaking. Dialogue tags are used first and foremost for clarity.
3. Vary the positioning of dialogue tags. Sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle and sometimes following.
4. Vary the type of dialogue tags. Try alternating between dialogue tags, descriptive action tags, and a few alternate verb dialogue tags.
5 Avoid using adverbs too frequently in dialogue tags. Use a very light hand.

Back to the definition of a dialogue tag. My personal definition includes the idea that the dialogue must be spoken (a speech verb). So, ‘said’ is wonderful. ‘Said with a laugh’ is too, but ‘laughed’ is not.
For the chunk of writing I had up in PWA, here are the ‘Unusual’ dialog tags.

01 Combo Check

Of these, ‘muse’ is problematic.  Also, I would argue that ‘laugh’ doesn’t fit. However, looking at the text, in the next s/s, I’ve certainly used 'laughed' as a dialogue tag, so shame on me for not following my own rule. A good reason to test each of the recommendations!

02 PWA Unusual-1

Notice that the second instance of 'laughed' is in the next line; I don’t know how anyone would consider that a speech tag. If Frank had a line of dialogue here, that would be an action tag, but as it is, it’s just narrative and shouldn’t be highlighted as a speech tag, unusual or not.
Of the others, I question ’teased’ and ‘interrupted’, as shown in the next two images.

03 PWA Unusual-2

04 PWA Unusual-3

In the first, ‘teased’ might be part of an action tag, though it actually describes Jani’s internal thoughts rather than her dialog.

In the second, ‘interrupted’ is part of the dialog, not a tag of any kind, which lends some credence to the theory that certain words are defined to be unusual speech tags no matter where they appear or how they are used.


The “Issues” just above the Unusual speech tags is also interesting. The claim is that two of the speech tags are present tense. The first is an occurrence of the word ‘told’ which I’m pretty sure is the past tense of  ‘tell’. In truth, the sentence is poorly constructed, but still, I consider this flagging to be a false positive.

05 PWA Unusual-4


As I said before, ‘interrupted’ isn’t a tag of any kind, and like told, I’m pretty sure it’s a past tense verb, what I wanted there.
I don’t understand what flagging these adds, even if they were present tense. And since I don’t, I’ll just say I haven’t seen a case where it actually flagged something other than a past tense word.

AutoCrit and Other Speech Tags

Skipping back to Unusual tags, I’m going to jump right to AutoCrit. I know I haven’t gone through the introductory stuff, but I will, probably next week. This is the screen when you click Dialogue Tags under Dialogue.

06 AC Others -1

I’ve scrolled down a little, so the Reference Counts aren’t shown, but My counts are. This is for the whole of the document, not a chunk like PWA considers. Said/Asked, the safe choices, ring up 661 out of 907, with the infamous “Others” accounting for the rest, 246 as shown.
All of the tags AC recognizes and believes in are listed in order of frequency, starting with ‘said’.

Notice that ‘laugh’ and ‘laughed’ both show up, although this isn’t the same document I used for the PWA examples. I’ll have to look at them to see if I actually used them as speech tags or they are false positives.

Scrolling down and just showing the Dialogue tags sidebar…

07 AC Others -2

Here are twenty-six more suspected tags. Of them, ‘giggle’ and its variants, ‘grinned’, ‘thought’ (really? Thought as a speech tag?), ‘chuckled’, ‘grunted’, ‘gasped’ and ‘squealed’. All these are difficult to convey words with.

Return’ is one to be careful with, since it could be used as ‘reply’; however, not in the three instances in this document.

Case 1

08 AC Others - returned 1

Case 2

09 AC Others - returned 2

Case 3

10 AC Others - returned 3

So these are all false positives.

The lesson is you have to look at each one to see if it’s a false positive (the software has flagged a non-speech verb) or if it’s flagged a legitimate case. If it is legitimate, then you have to decide whether to make the change or not.

My main complaint here is that the false positives take time to investigate, and they reduce the confidence in their other recommendations. As always, you must decide whether the cost (both in dollars for access and time spent sorting through their recommendations) is worth the benefit.

And the other comparison that needs to be made: the use of either of these (or any other software tool) versus hiring a human editor to accomplish these tasks. Again, decisions I can only make for me, not for you.

If you do come down on the side of using one or more of these tools, use them intelligently. Make sure that the changes you choose actually improve your work; don’t make a change just because the software says you should. Of course, this is true of any writing advice you receive. Use it if it makes your story, blog, presentation better, closer to what you want. Otherwise, don’t.

As always comments are welcome, especially where I’ve been unclear!

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