Simple solutions for frequent writing problems: How and where to attribute

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a mix of previous content as well as some updated material that hits on the topic at hand. It’s not that I worry about self-plagiarizing, but if you’re anything like me at this point in the semester, being reassured that you’re not actually losing your mind and that you might have seen this before is pretty helpful. — VFF)

In an attempt to help writers fix simple problems that have tended to crop up in the pieces I’ve been grading lately, we’re going to spend this week giving each one a quick look with some examples of things that went wrong and some simple solutions.

Today’s menu item: Attributions

The purpose of an attribution is to attach a source to a statement so the reader can figure out who said it and how much credence to lend that statement. Without attributions, the readers could assume the material is coming from the journalists themselves, and thus lead to all sorts of concerns about opinions and bias.

Let’s jump into this:

WHEN TO ATTRIBUTE: I often tell students I’ve never seen anyone get fired because they attributed too much. That said, there are plenty of instances out there where failing to attribute landed a writer in hot water. (My favorite is the Richard Jewell situation, which we’ve covered here before.)

In short, attribute almost everything. Here are a few exceptions:

  • The content is a fact, at the level of “water is wet.” (“Wisconsin is a state,” is the kind of statement you don’t need to attribute to an atlas or Google Maps. “Wisconsin is the BEST state,” will require an answer to “says who?”)
  • You witnessed the actions yourself and are reporting those observations. I tell my kids that if a former student walked into our classroom and beat the hell out of me and they saw it happen, they could write everything they saw without attribution for the student newspaper. That said, if a reporter from the paper showed up after I was beaten bloody and asked, “What happened?” that reporter would need to attribute that information to whomever did the explaining.

ATTRIBUTION STRUCTURE AND PLACEMENT: I’m a massive pain in the keester when it comes to this in my classes and I attribute that to the ancient nuns who taught me grammar with a passion for sentence diagrams. (It also helped that they backed up their play with steel-ruler discipline.)

Attributions should be structured in a noun-verb format:

  • Mayor Jane Smith said.
  • Johnson said.
  • he said.

NOT verb-noun

  • said Mayor Jane Smith.
  • said Johnson.
  • said he.

I get into arguments over this on occasion, including one with a former faculty member that evolved into a tenure-battle/land-war situation. Like most things, I try to explain WHY this is the way it is and it usually works on the kids. (That former faculty member is another story that can’t be told without alcohol and a non-disclosure agreement…)

Here’s my logic:

It’s grammatically sound: In the basic writing courses, we teach students the inherent value of active voice and why it provides advantages over passive voice. “Bill hit Bob” is tighter, stronger and shorter than “Bob was hit by Bill.”

Attributions are basically just tiny sentences, so this same approach applies. What an attribution says in active voice is “Smith said WORDS” while a passive-voice attribution says “These words were said by Smith.”

When you have a choice to go with grammar or run counter to grammar, it’s usually better to go with grammar, unless there is a compelling reason. (Example: Grammar dictates that you use “whom” with the objective case and that you not end a sentence with a preposition, as that leaves it “dangling.” That said, you wouldn’t ever get in a bar fight and yell, “DO YOU KNOW WITH WHOM YOU ARE MESSING?”)

It’s structurally logical: This addresses that previous kind of example, in that you want things to sound normal. For reasons past my understanding, some writers think “said Smith” sounds normal, even though they wouldn’t use that same structure if the attribution required a pronoun instead. (said she or said he)

Also, we don’t do this with other verbs, as it would sound flat-out goofy:

  • Ran I to the store to pick up a gallon of milk.
  • Won we first place at the track and field finals.
  • Proposed he to his girlfriend.

The minute I see that approach taking hold, I’ll buy into “said Smith” and then quickly descend into an underground bunker for the rest of eternity.

It only has one purpose: The point of an attribution is to answer “who says?” That’s it.

The argument I’ve seen over the years is, “Well, if I reverse the noun and the verb, I can add a bunch of information to the attribution, like ‘said Smith, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1949.’ This adds value.”

First of all, it’s an attribution, not the front pocket on your suitcase where you cram all the other crap you forgot to put elsewhere. Second, by stuffing the material in there, your readers might miss it, as we’ve trained them over the years to mentally skip past the attribution and simply acknowledge it’s there.

If you want to put additional content into your story, add it to the paraphrase that introduces the quote and let the attribution just do its simple job.

In terms of where to put the attribution, it’s a pretty simple set of guidelines:

  • For your paragraphs of paraphrase, put the attribution at the front if the “who” is more important than what they’re saying. If the “what” is more important than the “who,” do the opposite.
  • For single-sentence direct quotes, follow the same basic rule. For multi-sentence quotes, put the attribution after the first full sentence. This will allow the readers to engage with the quote, but it will tell them who said the information quickly enough to know how much weight they should give that quote.

VERBS OF ATTRIBUTION: As far as verbs of attribution go, not much can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:


The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”


Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.


According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

Leave a Reply