You Must Remember This, a Hiss Is Just a Hiss

Whenever I hear someone say that a written word, like “said,” is invisible, I usually cringe, since I don’t think of anything written as invisible, even in a metaphorical sense. But this is not that essay. On the surface, this short essay is about dialogue tags, but it’s also about how so-called masters, and even masters, can lead you astray.

Recently, I heard a writer read a fiction. It was one of the writer’s stronger pieces. In it, the writer had a character say something, and rather than use “he said” as the tag, the writer opted for what I would consider to be the ill-advised “he hissed.” Why is “hissed” inappropriate? Well, first, let me ask you to hiss, you know, the sound a snake makes, a deflating tire makes, etc. Okay, now hiss a word. Can’t do it, huh? (Perhaps there’s a word I’ve missed that’s comprised solely of s’s.) How about a sentence? Well, if you can’t even hiss a word, you certainly can’t hiss a sentence.

When I’d mentioned the gaff to the writer, the writer’s response was, “Well, that’s staying.” I said this was a mistake. “Tell that to Cormac McCarthy!” the writer said, the writer’s pissiness something just short of a hissy fit. And I said, “Given the chance, I’d let God know all about his mistakes.” The writer suggested I take a look at Blood Meridian.

McCarthy does, in fact, commandingly use the word “hiss,” that is, some of its various conjugations, in Blood Meridian:

“Sproule shooed his good hand at the buzzards and they bated and hissed and flapped clumsily but did not fly” (59).

It’s a great sentence, beginning with the ooh, ooh, ooh of “Sproule,” “shooed,” and “good,” ending with the sight-rhyming of the suffix-ending “ly” in “clumsily” with “fly.” I don’t know what sounds buzzards are actually capable of making, but this sentence does nothing to make me question the plausibility of their making this kind of sound. Cheetahs chirp, after all. Here’s another sentence from McCarthy:

“He shrieked and the bloodbat flailed and sat back upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth” (64).

Another strong sentence. The series of “ands” makes for brisk pacing in what is an action-packed sequence of events. As with the example above, I don’t know what sounds bloodbats are actually capable of making, but I don’t question the plausibility of them making this kind of sound. Plus, the assonantal sequence of those i-sounds at the sentence’s end is a nice flourish.

“He turned his leg to the fire for the light and folded his belt and held it and hissed down at the boy kneeling there” (160).

No problem here. Hissing is a way of expressing disapproval, getting someone’s attention, etc.

“On the eve of that day they crouched about the fire where it hissed in a softly falling rain…” (171)

Raindrops falling on a fire are likely to make a hissing sound.

“They rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land” (185).

This is another excellent sentence. McCarthy slows the pace down by using monosyllabic words (“and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west”), thoroughly evoking a long twilight ride, repeating the monosyllabic move at the end (“and the rain hissed in the blind night land”); and he slows the pace even more with various repetitions, the described sound of rain suffusing the scene with menace.

“He stood looking down into this gulf where the tops of the twisted evergreens hissed in the wind and then he started down” (211).

There’s a lot to admire in this sentence as well, not limited to the assonantal splendor of “hissed in the wind,” and the hissing effect of all those s’s: “tops of the twisted evergreens hissed…”

“The expriest at his side seized his arm and hissed and gestured toward the passing judge and the wind rattled the scraps of hide at the carcass…” (298)

The character’s hissing at something or someone makes sense.

So, McCarthy, in all the selections above, uses the hissing sound to unobtrusive and often interesting effect, and is successful in likening bloodbats, buzzards, humans, fire, and trees to snakes, lending a foreboding sense of treachery, of evil, to the novel’s overall atmosphere. McCarthy goes awry, however, in the following snippets of dialogue:

“El jefe, hissed the judge” (95).

“Even shares, he hissed” (267).

“Dont be a fool, he hissed” (267).

“Do him, he hissed” (283).

“Good lad, hissed the expriest” (290).

Try and hiss any of those sentences. It’s impossible. Disagree? Well, consider these passages from “Nits, Nips, Tucks, and Tips,” a tidy collection of technical admonishments, which you can find in Samuel Delany’s excellent book about writing, namely, About Writing:

The following two sentences are both wrong. Don’t write them.

1.     “Oh, I really enjoyed that,” she laughed.

2.     “Really, I just feel so…” she sighed.

The punctuation is wrong in both cases. Both laughing and sighing are fundamentally wordless sounds that human beings make. You can’t laugh words, nor can you sigh them. If you are not laughing very hard, you can laugh while you speak.

“Oh, I really enjoyed that,” she said, laughing.

The same goes for sighing:

“Really, I just feel so…” As she spoke, she sighed.

But both examples 1 and 2 above are actually run-on sentences.

Either they should be rewritten or they should be corrected:

“Oh, I really enjoyed that.” She laughed.

“Really, I just feel so…” She sighed.

Neither of these means, however, quite the same thing as 1. and 2. Each example is two sentences. They mean she spoke first. Then she laughed—or sighed.

A third and final error is very close to these but has some interesting ramifications. The following is also wrong.

3.     “Oh, Billy,” she wept, “I’ve just been miserable since I’ve been back from school.”

It would be just as incorrect if you replaced wept with cried or sobbed. As do laughing and sighing, “to weep,” “to cry,” and “to sob” all refer to fundamentally wordless sounds people make. The same argument holds for them as holds for laughing and sighing.

To conclude, you can’t hiss a word or a sentence any more than you can laugh, sigh, weep, chirp, slurp, or burp one.

You could argue that McCarthy isn’t using the word “hiss” literally, that he’s using it metaphorically, but that would be rubbish, buncombe, a sad attempt to explain away a writer’s error in judgment.

So let’s fix McCarthy’s mistakes:

El jefe, said the judge.

Even shares, he said.

Dont be a fool, he said.

Do him, he said.

Good lad, said the expriest.

These sentences are, admittedly, dull, but better a dull sentence than a grammatically questionable one; and each sentence can be easily fixed, their dullness changed to something brighter, maybe even molten golden, by following each respective “said” with any number of apt and compelling qualifications and descriptors; or they can be left alone, their dullness a point of contrast against more elaborate constructions.

44 thoughts on “You Must Remember This, a Hiss Is Just a Hiss

  1. Great post, John. I first read Delany on writing, oh, must have been the early 70s, just when I was seriously but not very effectively trying to write myself. I think the piece I read then (‘Thickening the Plot’, it’s in About Writing) has had more effect on my writing than anything else I’ve ever read.

    And ‘he hissed’ is one of the things that really irritates me. I am sure that in 90% of cases what the author really means is ‘he whispered”, but they want to make it sound more urgent or more threatening. Hiss practically always entails threat.

    One thing I am sure of, like you, in 100% of cases they do not mean ‘he hissed’, because it’s not a sound you can make and still utter a meaningful and comprehensible sentence.

  2. Definitely, John. One must be very careful about getting creative with dialogue tags — such a practice can often veer into kitsch, which is fine if that is the writer’s intended effect.

  3. i’m siding with cormac on this one, john. you can hiss a word or sentence, or laugh or sigh one. the last two people seem to do all the time. the first maybe not so much, them not being evil judges. there could be all sorts of reasons not to use those tags but impossibility of the act isn’t one of them, joe laughed.

    • “I think,” he began, removing his glasses and rubbing his crinkled brow (already sore from a long evening’s grading), “that this is one of those specialized situations where I’d tell undergrads never to do it—or, rather, try to make them more aware of what they are doing. Because dialogue tags is, I think, for too many folks, an entirely unconscious decision.” Clearing his throat (he’d been eating too much ice cream), he continued, “But I myself might, in my own writing, use these tags.” Then, grimacing (as though experiencing a bout of indigestion), he hastened to add: “Although I’d try to complicate them in some artistic way, such as using them ironically. Not that I’m all that big a fan of irony,” he concluded, chuckling wryly.

      “But John Madera should never use them!” he hissed suddenly, laughing.

      • “There’s a typo in your comment,” my friend said. “The second sentence should read, ‘Because dialogue tags are…'”

        “Thank you,” I replied, chagrined.

        Then hissed, “Now kindly fuck off.”

  4. Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass

    How much, how much, he hissed. p. 277

    The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

    “On, very much so, don’t we, precious,” the Antichrist hissed to his leg.

    Second Skin by John Hawkes

    “You leave Chloris alone,” her partner hissed… p.82

    The Recognitions by William Gaddis

    –That that’s sin! Anselm hissed… p.526

    Perhaps in a non-fiction article, someone shouldn’t write: “Last Thursday, he hissed to me, “And I didn’t like Reagan either.”

    These are worlds of fiction.

          • Surely, though, John, you can’t be serious that writers should never use the dialogue tag “hiss,” or that all uses of it are bad.

            Here’s how I see it: most of the time, it’s stupid, and a cliche. Those are things I generally don’t want in my own writing, in any writing.

            But that also means that said tag is a literary convention that works a certain way, and a crafty writer can exploit that. (That’s what writing is: engaging with the shared ways in which people use language, either by adhering to conventions, or by avoiding them…or by subverting them.)

            The DFW example is a good one:

            “On, very much so, don’t we, precious,” the Antichrist hissed to his leg.

            Wallace is clearly employing the register of a hackish, melodramatic work (he’s shifting registers, à la Gaddis or Pynchon), presumably to parody such writing, as well as to complicate and enrich the tonal tapestry of his own writing. It’s ironic, funny—key traits of Wallace’s writing. He’s also distinguishing the character of the Antichrist from his sister, Lenore (by making the Antichrist ridiculous). He meanwhile shows he has control over the language by employing strong internal rhyme:

            “On, very much so, don’t we, precious,” the Antichrist hissed to his leg.

            This isn’t some unconscious, careless hiss. In other words, a hiss isn’t just a hiss. (Not all hisses are created equal!)

            Cheers,
            Adam

            • Like Michael wrote above, I think that “veering into kitsch…is fine if that is the writer’s intended effect.” Shifting registers is just another rhetorical tool, and when it’s done well, it’s inspiring and instructive.

              • I see we agree then. And that’s what’s important: that everyone always agree!

                That whole section in Broom sees a ton of tonal shifting (though I don’t know if I’d call any of it kitsch). And, mind you, I’m not saying that I like it. (I could never quite finish reading Broom—it’s too ponderous and imitative for my simple tastes.) But I think it’s clear Wallace is using the language deliberately, and skillfully.

    • Providing a list of great writers using “hissed” as a dialogue tag reminds me of the ongoing debates between descriptivists versus prescriptivists about usage. And in this case, the list falls, for me, as flat as people attempting to justify the mishandling of “disinterest” and “uninterest” by pointing to how often the terms are used interchangeably.

      • Gass uses the word “hiss” thirteen times in The Tunnel, twice as dialogue tags (and obviously punningly):

        . . . because it means more Jews. I hiss the last in my snakiest tongue, looped as I am on a lower branch, but Marty gags rhetorically. (93)

        In the toilet-tissue hours, I’d hiss poisonously in her ear, we can’t afford to fart. (336)

  5. I like this, John. I love McCarthy’s writing. But just like with any writer, I do cringe at the use of “hissed” or just about any tag other than “said.” When I was acting, I used to HATE when stage directions would indicate you were suppose to “hiss” your dialogue. The only people that hiss when they speak are Voldemort and Gollum.

  6. Good discussion. Flatness is the problem to which “hissed” is an attempted solution, maybe more successful at some times than at others. The spoken voice is marvelously subtle, and we have few techniques to convey its nuances. If we are musical writers (or even think of ourselves, as I sometimes do, as musicians pretending to be writers), then we are likely jealous of the composer’s license to impart expressionistic directions in that great white space between the staves. So, for instance, one of my favorite musical directions is Satie’s “like a hat made of mahogany.” Of course this must be interpreted metaphorically, as you mention, John. It is both (in the way that language tends to be) precise and imprecise, and must be both, must frame the possibilities for the delivery of the note/phrase while leaving matters somewhat open for the performer. Some of McCarthy’s hisses are probably hits and some are probably misses, but I’d say that dialogue tags beyond “said” should be celebrated and mastered rather than avoided. The “hiss” to me, properly rendered, has less to do with the sound and more to do with the shape of a snake’s head jutting out, like some sentient periscope, the words stretching out and left to echo, meant to cause a recoiling, meant to imply venom waiting in potentia.

    • Good points all, Tim. Other uses:

      “All my products are flat,” the tire salesman hissed.

      Tired and naked, Adam whined: “I’m hungry.”
      “Shut up,” Eve hissed.

      Yadda yadda.

      • “The “hiss” to me, properly rendered, has less to do with the sound and more to do with the shape of a snake’s head jutting out, like some sentient periscope, the words stretching out and left to echo, meant to cause a recoiling, meant to imply venom waiting in potentia.”

        Spot on, this hiss, this question of hiss, which you don’t miss. Words are worlds or as Gass hissed, there is a “World Within the Word.”

        Adam – once you go to the colony, you can end things like that by saying, “Yaddo, yaddo.”

    • Hey, Tim.

      I agree that dialogue tags should be “mastered rather than avoided.” I was highlighting what I considered to be McCarthy’s failures in this respect.

      When you say that a “properly rendered” hiss “has less to do with the sound and more to do with the shape of a snake’s head jutting out, like some sentient periscope, the words stretching out and left to echo, meant to cause a recoiling, meant to imply venom waiting in potentia,” it suggests, to me, that you’re referring to the idea that an attitude can “say” something, and, if that’s the case, then I’d wholeheartedly agree. Just like facial expressions, and other forms of body “language,” an attitude can communicate just as much and sometimes more than actual speech.

      Are you suggesting that McCarthy’s constructions are not really dialogue tags, but something like attitude tags? Though that would certainly be interesting, I don’t think that’s what McCarthy is doing. From how they’re constructed, these are hisses that are meant to be sounded, and I’m confounded how those words can be hissed. Maybe I should listen to the Blood Meridian audiobook in order to hear a human finally hiss some words.

      • John, all,

        What I don’t get is: why must all dialogue tags be strictly literal? Since when is all fiction realist, and/or mimetically descriptive? The words on the page do a hell of a lot more than simply create little mental images that readers then compare to their impressions of reality (whatever that is).

        I love Delany, but stuff anyone who writes stuff like, “The following two sentences are both wrong. Don’t write them.” I’ll write whatever the hell I want, thank you very much!

        Or, rather, stuff anyone who would apply such an instruction—which I agree there is a time and a place for—to all writing. What’s missing in this discussion (although I’ve tried to introduce it) is any sense of context. I frequently tell my students not to do things that I myself do in my own writing—because instruction often proceeds by means of constraints. (If I don’t break them out of their habits—which are sometimes good and sometimes bad—they won’t learn anything new.) Hell, I often instruct myself not to do things that I know that I can do, or have done elsewhere—because I want to shape the nature of the work, try something new, break myself out of my own habits (both good and bad).

        Anything is possible in art, or nothing is. I have very little patience for those who would reduce human imagination to lists of what’s “correct” and “incorrect,” and even less patience for those who would go around examining novels with checklists, noting which authors have “failed” to live up to X or Y arbitrary standard. Again, it all depends on the context. Art is holistic, and exists in relationship with other art…not to mention the rest of the culture.

        Should Delany’s Edict stand for all time? And apply equally to all cultures? To Babylonian epics to contemporary Japanese poetry alike? To realist and metafiction alike?

        We’re not far from James Wood territory here. (His preference is that all authors use only the third person limited.)

        Most sincerely,
        Adam

        • Hey, Adam.

          I’d say yours is a misplaced rant.

          I’m not suggesting that everyone write realist fiction. I am suggesting that, within the context of Blood Meridian (a realist novel by most accounts), characters hissing words and sentences is simply implausible.

          And Delany’s admonishments should be understood within the context of his book, which is self-described as “conservative”:
          “My approach to story is conservative, all but identical to the one E.M. Forster (1879-1970) put forward in his 1927 meditation, Aspects of the Novel” (37).

          I don’t think the various “rules” that Delany lays down applies to all fiction all the time. I do think they largely apply to McCarthy’s fiction. Unless McCarthy is working within some kind of neo-surrealist mode or is somehow parodying his genre, I don’t see how his characters can hiss sentences.

          Like it or not, every genre has its constraints, and a writer is welcome to play, challenge, and contradict those constraints; and I’d be the first to applaud a writer’s effort and success, but also the first to be disappointed when they, as McCarthy did in the examples I highlight above, fail.

          To reiterate, Delany’s admonishments do stand as excellent guidance for writers writing in the realist genre that McCarthy is working within.

          • I must have overstood you, then. You’re being more tongue-in-cheek than is coming through in your comments, perhaps? (You do have more a prescriptivist side to you than I do. When it comes to language, I’m like maybe 99% descriptivist, 1% prescriptivist. If even that.)

            I myself have never thought of Blood Meridian as a realist novel. If anything, McCarthy has always struck me as a pulp writer who has gotten mistaken for a realist writer—which is, in fact, the source of my dislike of him: I dislike the air surrounding McCarthy’s work that he’s revealing “the true nature of the West.” The West is strip malls and gas stations and McDonald’s—like everywhere else in this godforsaken country—not colorful serial killers and stoic men as hard as the landscape. McCarthy’s works, I persist in arguing, are fantasies, and should be understood as such. (I’d also argue that one of the chief problems with our time—besides that garbage landscape—is that people are too in love with fantasy, and simultaneously unwilling to acknowledge them as fantasies.)

            But I also don’t really believe in realist fiction, in any case. I believe instead in this. Not that such a belief will save anyone.

            Cheers,
            Adam

          • James Wood, How Fiction Works:

            Cormac McCarthy writes, in Blood Meridian, “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler images on the sand,” and returns to that lovely verb two years later in All the Pretty Horses: “Where a pair of herons stood footed to their long shadows.” Why shouldn’t he? Such things are rarely examples of haste and more often proof that a style has achieved self-consistency. And that a kind of Platonic ideal has been reached—these are the best, and therefore unsurpassable words for these subjects. [My emphasis]

            In Wood’s view, if we just keep writing long enough, we’ll eventually find the right words for everything in creation, and then we can…I dunno, stop writing, go play parcheesi instead—that game takes a lifetime to master…

      • Hey, John,

        I suppose I would argue that McCarthy’s language is other than dialogue tag–I do sort of like your term “attitude tag.” Without having a good hard look again at Blood Meridian I’m trusting my memory, which isn’t always a great idea. But I feel, for instance, that McCarthy’s non-use of quotation marks is meant to do something rhetorically, to suggest among other things that his characters are something other than just individuals moving in a landscape, in a sense are inextricable from that landscape. In particular in this book they feel freighted with significance, symbolic import, are tokens, yes, of an attitude as much as they are flesh-and-blood persons. Thus the elevated, biblical nature of the language, torrential and sometimes abstract, defying visibility in a way roughly analogous to how “hiss” confounds audibility. All this plus the echoing phrases like “They rode on,” and designations like “The Kid” and the Judge (he’s Holden but more often his nickname)–all converge to give the book the allegorical dimension that takes it out of the realist camp for me.

        • John,

          You say this, “…within the context of Blood Meridian (a realist novel by most accounts)…”

          No.

          It is not a realist novel and very few accounts say so. I would counsel reading the book first before saying such things. I have read it. And then read the entire thing aloud.

          • Greg,

            Well, Greg, in any case, bring along your copy of Blood Meridian the next time I see you. I’d love to hear you read some of those hissing passages aloud. I’ll try to bring along a video camera to get some documentary footage of a person finally hissing words and sentences.

  7. Such “tags” abound in bad writing. They do not necessarily annoy me when I read, but I do the best I can to avoid them when I write. At a sublime level, so does Mr. McCarthy.

    My reasons may differ from those of from other contributors here. You see, I think that if a character is really supposed to “hiss” something, the tag “he hissed,” should be the good writer’s last and desperate resort. Rather, it (the hissing) should be implicit. It can be folded into the sentence either phonetically or through a masterful choice of words or by describing the speaker or the party addressed (gesture, change in physical attitude).

    The overuse of any tag is often the mark of a bad writer. I have just done a quick search to see if such flaws occur in The Sweets of Sin. Well, Joyce doesn’t quote much of that masterpiece, a bit of porn Bloom buys for Molly, but if he had let us see more of it, there would have been many a “she sighed,” or “he muttered”. Show me a pot boiler and I’ll show you lots of hissing and growling and whining. Often enough even “she said” can go away. Too often this kind of tag is a crutch. It is a weak surrogate for the skill and hard work it would take to create tone out of the words themselves rather than to slap a label on them.

    Want some hissing try this:

    Wonder not, sovran Mistress, if perhaps
    Thou canst, who art sole Wonder, much less arm
    Thy looks, the Heav’n of mildness, with disdain,
    Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze
    Insatiate, I thus single; nor have feard
    Thy awful brow, more awful thus retir’d.
    Fairest resemblance of thy Maker faire,
    Thee all living things gaze on, all things thine
    By gift, and thy Celestial Beautie adore
    With ravishment beheld, there best beheld
    Where universally admir’d; but here
    In this enclosure wild, these Beasts among,
    Beholders rude, and shallow to discerne
    Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
    Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen
    A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d
    By Angels numberless, thy daily Train.
    So gloz’d the Tempter, . . .

    PL VII

    O.K. O.K. So he “glozed”. Only an eye-witness can say he didn’t.

    • Thank you for this reminder of the bounty of Milton.

      “…the good writer’s last and desperate resort.” – seems fit

      The right word at the right time will bring one to their knees, or to look away from the page to joy, shame or anger.

    • Yes, I’m well aware of the descriptivist leanings of some dictionaries, reflecting, and perhaps even privileging, how people use words over anything else. It’s important to remember that dictionaries aren’t free from criticism, that is, just because something’s in the dictionary doesn’t mean that it is an undisputed fact. Regarding that secondary definition of “to hiss,” I’d love for the editors of whatever dictionary you’re actually quoting from to demonstrate someone hissing an entire word or sentence. Hissing and whispering, in my mind, are not synonymous.

    • That Madagascar Hissing Cockroach is pretty wonderful, though if it hissed in my bed I might be less enthused.

      I once included “hissiphones” in a litany of (slightly) outlandish objects unearthed from a shed in one of my stories. I’m not sure what I had in mind, but damn I wish I had a clip of one in action.

  8. John,

    I think you are being just a tad silly. “Hissed” isn’t *just* a convention … when esses are emphasized in a sentences–in its DELIVERY, I mean; not on the page–or when other or consonants or even vowels are lenghtened, when the volume is down but the tone is venomous–we call that a hiss; a human hiss, not a snake hiss. “You’re sssssoooooo sssssstupid,” he hissed is comic-book example. In other words, when humans hiss it is not identical to the hiss of snake, which is what you are insisting on. Someone once leaned over to me a movie theater, her mouth not half an inch from my ear, and–yes–hissed, “You fffffucking better well *do* it.” I’ll never forget that drawn-out “f”–or her hiss. Moreoever, you seem to be asking for a literal hiss. You might as well get rid of all figurative/metaphorical language since it’s not literally true either. (I’m with Adam on this.) Either way, is it really all that important?

    I’m really not sure what is admirable about the McCarthy writing you’ve pulled … WHAT “clattering frames” do we find around mountains exactly? I’m honestly confused there. And how can you “shoo” your hand? Where could it possibly go? You can shoo WITH your hand, but that’s not what he wrote.
    I’m not impressed with his “and and and and” constructions either; there’s a word for irritating people like that, but it’s too fancy to remember (for me anyway). I also think you are very wrong about him slowing the pace; that sentence is high-speed photography: we go from evening to night in a sentence, the monosyllables making the transition choppy instead of smooth (from where I sit). Think about it. HOw would you slow it down if you wanted to? More syllables, more words, more verbiage. Not at all what he does. He puts the tape of fast forward and gives you the condensed version in every aspect. And I know you are fond of assonance, but it’s more often than not an accident of language or, worse, used to the point where the prose becomes pretentious … drawing attention away from the beautiful woman you are writing about and focusing it on the slaves attending her (to borrow a metaphor from Gass).

    • And I think it’s a tad silly of you, Vincent, to argue a point, unconvincingly I might add, and then end with the rather disingenuous question of whether the topic at hand is really all that important.

  9. While I know this is an extremely old post, I found it when someone I was in a discussion with online a few minutes ago asserted that “hiss” shouldn’t be used as a dialogue tag, which is something I wasn’t sure I agreed with.

    …and, while I appreciate your argument, I’m still not sure I agree with it. :) My response was that I saw “hiss” in that sense as “speaking in an urgent or stressed whisper,” and it made at least as much sense as using the word “whisper” or “yell” as a dialogue tag: it’s not describing an action like “sigh” or “laugh,” but rather describing a way of speaking.

    I’m aware dictionary definitions are the last resort of scoundrels, but both the Oxford American Dictionary and Merriam-Webster.com seem to agree with me by providing a similar definition to mine. Oxford even provides what they call a “direct speech” example: “‘Get back!’ he hissed.”

    One can still argue against “hiss” as a dialogue tag on the grounds that a writer should rarely need anything but “said” if the dialogue is strong enough (and I may be giving my own most recent work a slightly self-conscious pass now). But in this case, I’m not convinced you can argue that it’s wrong in the way using “laugh” or “sob” or “sigh” as a dialogue tag is, because the verb form of hiss really can refer to a way of speaking, not just to making a non-vocal sound.

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