Dissertation-writing graduate students’ favorite word is “state.” Or at least that’s what seems to be the case every second time I read a chapter discussing interview data. It’s a popular word for lit reviews, as well, but interviewees in particular sure do like to “state” things.
What I’m referring to is the speech tag the author introduces quotations with. It’s this:
The participant stated, “. . .”
And although I might be a little wry about that one particular word, it’s just as likely that you (if you’re writing anything that involves a series of quotations) fixate on a different one. It’s understandable, actually. By the time you reach the interview chapter, you’re probably very weary of the whole dissertation thing, and creativity in speech tag choice is way down on the brainpower priority list.
Admittedly, it is a little thing, and your committee probably won’t notice it as much as your editor does. But they might, and so here are a few words you can use to diversify your speech tag arsenal, as well as when to use them most effectively.
State. You won’t hear me saying not to use it. It's just that I recently edited an interview data chapter that contained no other speech tags at all, and that was a bit of monotony overkill. It is nonetheless an effective, straightforward word that can be followed up with practically any kind of quotation. Just not every quotation.
Respond. This is a good option for direct answers to direct questions. Of course, any of the other tags in this list can introduce answers to questions, too; the difference is that “respond” and “reply” can’t be used without a stated or implied question. Spontaneous comments cannot be described as responses.
When I asked Respondent Q how many times he had observed the behavior, he responded that “. . .”
Reply. The reply is the response’s neighbor and friendly buddy. It’s also an answer to a question, but its tone is slightly more casual. It can be inserted here and there to break up a string of too many “respond” quotations.
In answer to the question about gerbil care, she replied, “. . .”
Comment. This one is nice and versatile. A participant can comment on a point the interviewer has made, can take the interview in a different direction with a comment, or can answer a question by commenting. The type of context where it might sound awkward is when the participant is speaking forcefully.
Concerning the building’s redesign, Respondent R commented, “. . .”
Agree/disagree. These probably don’t need much explanation. The interviewer makes a statement or refers in the text to a standpoint, and the participant explains his or her perspective. “Concur” can work as a synonym for “agree,” but be careful of overusing it. While you can use “agree” ten times in a chapter without it calling attention to itself, “concur” will start to sound pretentious after a while.
Many of the other respondents believed the park’s new rules would promote safety, but Respondent S disagreed: “. . .”
Indicate. When a participant “indicates” something, he or she is making a point of calling attention to it. Semantically, it will sometimes work best when it’s clear outside of the quotation what exactly the speaker wants your attention to be directed toward.
She indicated a lack of familiarity with the new legislation: “. . .”
Suggest. This verb works best when there is a hint of implication or connotation in the participant’s words or when there is an element of opinion, theory, or speculation in his or her claim. Be careful of using it in contexts where the participant’s claim isn’t meant as opinion (or theory), though, because it can sound like you’re calling the participant’s words into doubt and will come off as non-neutral.
Respondent T suggested that “the traffic might have been due to the football game and the poultry expo falling on the same day.”
Explain. If the participant is explaining a point of view or a state of affairs, you might as well say so in the speech tag. It won’t work well when the “explanation” is fairly obvious, but it also doesn’t have to be out-of-left-field unexpected.
I asked Respondent U if she’d expected her good fortune, and she explained, “I wasn’t seeking to inherit a chocolate empire, but I wasn’t shying away from it, either.”
Discuss. The main criterion for introducing a quotation with the word “discuss” is length. It's not an ideal opening for very short quotations, but a paragraph or block quote will often merit the designation. Note also, though, that a "discussion" implies more than one person, so this tag works particularly well when it is clear that the participant's standpoint can be compared or contrasted to some other standpoint, whether it's the interviewer's, another named person's, the expectations of the reader, or a perspective that the quote itself implies.
When asked about the decline of the home video market, Respondent V discussed at length the years she worked at Blockbuster: “. . .”
Report. This one can introduce information that the participant is presenting as factual. You can doubt it, you can refute it elsewhere (or right away), or you can simply take it at face value and use it as evidence, all according to the context of your chapter. But for the participant, it is truth, so the information can be characterized as "reported."
As Respondent W reported, “Company A has suffered net losses over the past few years.”
Conjecture. Ooh, fancy! This word means to guess or deduce, and that’s the type of speech it can introduce—a statement the participant is unsure about or is proposing as a conclusion. Actually, once we get into words like “conjecture,” we kind of open the entire dictionary up to use. And that is fine—wonderful, in fact—but 1) just make sure you’re using these words correctly, not just with respect to their definitions but with respect to connotation, as well, and 2) please review the first of the Final Tips below.
The participant did not know how long the railroad had been in operation but conjectured, “. . .”
Say. Doesn’t anyone ever simply say anything anymore? Of course they do! Just not, apparently, in dissertations (she says drolly). But why not just “say” so? I guess writers expect such a generic word to be boring. And if you use it exclusively, it well could be, but that makes repetitive use of words like "state" a little ironic. I'll address this in our Final Tip.
Final Tip 1: Finding Balance
Good writing elucidates your content, rather than distracting your readers from it. There are a few conflicting things going on with speech tag choice that work on the level of distraction.
You can think of words as falling on a spectrum from generic (like "say") to sophisticated (like "conjecture"). I know neither adjective is ideal, but I'm sure they get the point across. Diversifying your word use means finding a balance across this spectrum.
You can distract your readers by fixating on one generic word. You can both distract them and look pretentious by not using generic words at all. You can distract them by misusing a sophisticated word. You can even distract them by being too obvious about choosing a different speech tag for every single quotation. So much to worry about, what is there to do?
First, don't panic. This is a post about vocabulary, not safety protocol at a nuclear power plant. If you do use speech tags effectively, your interview section will be more enjoyable to read, but if you don't, no harm will come to you or any of your participants. Second, let your content guide your word choice. All of these words will sound natural if you have a firm grip on their use and if you apply them where they say, "Apply me! Apply me!" Ultimately, your keyword is "balance."
Final Tip 2: Punctuation
When you’re choosing the punctuation that comes right before a quote, you’re using a combination of knowledge and reader’s gut. Your three basic choices are comma, colon, and no punctuation (there might be others, but please don't attempt a semicolon).
Here is a list of “usualies” (I made that noun form up, so don’t try to find it in a dictionary), not rules. I also refer below to their uses as "safe" rather than "right" or "wrong." They can all be right or wrong in different contexts, but this will be about which is most likely to be the best choice.
Usually a colon. If the text that comes before the quotation can form a complete sentence on its own, then a colon is usually the safest option to precede the quote. See the examples for agree/disagree, indicate, and discuss.
Usually no punctuation (before the opening quotation mark). If the text that comes before the quotation leads directly into the quote so that the entire piece would make a natural and complete sentence when the quotation marks are removed, then you usually won’t need a comma or a colon. See the examples for respond and suggest.
Usually a comma. If neither of the above two conditions applies, then a comma is usually the safest choice to precede the quote. See the examples for reply, comment, and explain.
I call these “usualies” instead of “rules” because there might always be exceptions, so be open to those. Come to think of it, a lot of “rules” of academic writing would be better understood as “usualies.” But that’s a topic for another time.
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