What's Attribution in Writing?

It Identifies Speaker, Tone of Words

Attribution also called a reporting clause in academia, is the identification of the speaker or source of written material. It is commonly expressed in words like "she said," "he shouted" or "he asks" or the name of the source and the appropriate verb. Sometimes this attribution identifies the tone as well as who made the statement. Both direct and indirect quotes require attribution.

Good Writing Definition

In "The Facts on File Guide to Good Writing" from 2006, Martin H.

Manser discusses attribution. The positioning of attribution discussed here for an indirect quote is not written in stone; many good writing authorities, particularly in journalism, prefer that attribution comes at the end of the quote, regardless of whether it is direct or indirect. This is one opinion.

"The reporting clause consists of a subject and a verb of speaking or writing, as well as any other related information -- 'Roger said; answered Tom; they shouted angrily.' In indirect speech, the reporting clause always precedes the reported clause, but indirect speech, it may be placed before, after, or in the middle of the reported clause. When it is inserted after or in the middle of the reported clause, it is set off by commas, and the verb is often placed before the subject -- 'said his mother; replied Bill.' When the reporting clause is placed at the beginning of the sentence, it is usual to follow it with a comma or colon, which appears before the opening quotation marks.

"When a text has two or more people involved in a conversation, it is common for the reporting clause to be omitted once it has established whose turn it is to speak:

'What do you mean by that?' demanded Higgins.
'What do you think I mean?' responded Davies.
'I'm not sure.'
'Let me know when you are.'

"Note also that the convention of beginning a new paragraph with each new speaker aids in distinguishing the individuals in a conversation."

Omitting the Word 'That'

David Blakesley and Jeffrey Hoogeveen discuss the use of the word "that" in quotations in "The Thomson Handbook" (2008).

"You may have noticed that 'that' is sometimes absent from reporting clauses. The decision to omit 'that' is based on several factors. Informal contexts and academic writing, 'that' is generally included. 'That' can be omitted when (1) the subject of the 'that' complement is a pronoun, (2) the reporting clause and the 'that' clause  have the same subject, and/or (3) the writing context is informal."

Here's an example from Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" (1994):

"She said that she thought the land was under a curse and asked him for his opinion, but he said he knew little of the country."

About the Word 'Said'

Here's what eminent grammarian Roy Peter Clark said the word "said" in "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer" (2006):

"Leave 'said' alone. Don't be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to opine, elaborate, cajole or chortle."

Examples of Attribution

From "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

"[Gatsby] broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.


"'I wouldn't ask too much of her,' I ventured. 'You can't repeat the past.'
"'Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'
"He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
"'I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before,' he said, nodding determinedly. 'She'll see.'" 

From "Wise Blood," Flannery O'Connor (1952)

"'I reckon you think you been redeemed,' he said. Mrs. Hitchcock snatched at her collar.
"'I reckon you think you been redeemed,' he repeated.
"She blushed. After a second she said yes, life was an inspiration and then she said she was hungry and asked if he didn't want to go into the diner."