Grammar Term: Reporting Verbs

Different Tenses Offer Different Effects

Examples of reporting verbs in English

In English grammar, a reporting verb is a verb (such as say, tell, believe, reply, respond, or ask) used to indicate that discourse is being quoted or paraphrased. It's also called a communication verb.

"[T]he number of reporting verbs that can be employed to mark paraphrases is around a dozen," author Eli Hinkel reported, "and they can be learned with relative ease while working on a writing assignment (e.g., the author says, states, indicates, comments, notes, observes, believes, points out, emphasizes, advocates, reports, concludes, underscores, mentions, finds), not to mention phrases with similar textual functions such as according to the author, as the author states/indicates, in the author's view/opinion/understanding, or as noted/stated/mentioned." (Teaching Academic ESL Writing.

Routledge, 2004)

Tenses and Their Uses

Most often, reporting verbs, such as seen in fiction to show dialogue, are in the past tense, because as soon as a speaker says something, it is literally in the past. 

George Carlin illustrates this in this example of reported speech: "I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, 'Where's the self-help section?' She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose."

To contrast with words spoken once, putting a reporting verb in the present tense is used to show an adage, something that someone has said in the past and continues to say or presently believes. For example: "She always says how he's not good enough for you."

Next, a reporting verb may be in the historical present tense (to refer to an event that took place in the past). Historical present is often used for dramatic effect or immediacy, to place the reader right in the scene. The technique should be used sparingly, so you don't create confusion, but its use can make for a dramatic lead to a story, for example.

"The year is 1938, the place, Paris. The soldiers smash shop windows and run through the street and yell..." 

You also use reporting verbs in the literary present tense (to refer to any aspect of a work of literature). This is because no matter what year you watch a particular movie or read a book, the events always unfold in the same way.

The characters always say the same thing in the same order. For example, if you're writing on "Hamlet," you might write, "Hamlet shows his anguish when he speaks his 'To be' soliloquy." Or if you're reviewing fantastic movie lines, you might write, "Who can forget when Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, 'Here's looking at you, kid' in 'Casablanca'?" 

Don't Overuse Reporting Verbs

When you're writing dialogue, if the identity of a speaker is clear from the context, such as in a back-and-forth conversation between two people, the reporting phrase is often omitted; it doesn't have to be used with each line of dialogue, just enough times to make sure the reader doesn't get lost as far as who's speaking, such as if the conversation is long or if a third party interjects. And if the lines of conversation are short, using a bunch of "he said" "she said" gets distracting for the reader. It's more effective to leave them out in this instance.

Overusing "creative" substitutions for, "said" can also get distracting for the reader. A reader goes by "said" quickly and doesn't lose the flow of the dialogue. Be judicious on using substitutions for "said." 

"The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in," wrote Elmore Leonard in The New York Times.

 "But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated,' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary." (Elmore Leonard, "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle." July 16, 2001)