I’ve long wondered how in reported speech, what sort of change in nuance is produced by switching around the normal order of the subject (that is, the speaker) and the “speech-related” verb (such as say, ask, or mutter) used for simple declaration of whatever was said.

Assuming that QQQ below stands for any quoted speech, what — if any — subtle shifts of meaning are there between the following three formats?

  1. He said, “QQQ.”
  2. QQQ,” he said.
  3. QQQ,” said he.

In particular, in what situations is the “inverted” VS1 order of said he preferred over either or both of the two versions that use he said in the “normal” SV2 order?

Are these nothing more than three equal options that vary by individual writers’ personal tastes?

If not, then what rules exist for choosing between and distinguishing these three variants?

1.  VS means verb–subject, or with object, VSO or OVS.
2.  SV means subject–verb, or with object, SVO or OSV.

  • It's neither grammar nor "writer's taste" that determines the subject-verb arrangement. Each variant has "the nuance" of conveying a subtly different sense. Depending on what is intended to be conveyed, one should use the right technique ("technique" is part of writing, not language.) – Kris Nov 24 '12 at 8:29
  • @Yoichi I’ve copyedited your question, and somewhat more heavily than normal, with the aim of improving its formating and focus without changing its meaning at all. However, if in doing so I have somehow misrepresented what you are asking, then I pray your forgiveness for my well-meaning misadventure, and in that case, I thoroughly entreat you to feel perfectly free to switch your own question back to whatever phrasing you prefer, however you see fit. – tchrist Nov 24 '12 at 18:19
  • @tchrist.Your reedited version is exactly what I wanted to convey. My original writing looked like 2nd grader’s English composition as compared with senior university student’s essay. I always feel a hopeless abyss of expressive power lying between sophisticated native English speakers and an old, non-native English language student. You gave me a good lesson for perfect English writing. – Yoichi Oishi Nov 26 '12 at 0:19

I think this question might be a better fit for Writers.SE, and wouldn’t be surprised if this gets migrated there. As Kris mentioned, this is more of a writing question than a language question.

Those he said / said she constructs are used in literature so that readers can discern which characters are talking. In that context, I think authors simply use whichever format interferes least, and flows best, with the dialogue.

I can’t recall any hard-and-fast rules for when to use one format over the other, but I might venture to make a few general assertions.

Your format #1 is often used when the author wants to let the reader hone in on who is speaking:

A woman in the back of the room interrupted, “What about the crisis in Europe?”

Formats #2 and #3 are used when the author would rather focus attention on the remarks themselves:

The two detectives surveyed the messy room. Obviously, Laura had put up a struggle, and a good one at that. The hardened veterans had seen plenty of staged crime scenes before, but this was the real thing. “She must’ve put up quite a struggle,” Dave said.

“Yes,” mumbled Sam, “she wasn’t going down without a fight.”

I also think that the inversion of format #3 is seldom used with pronouns, but not uncommon at all with proper names:

“It’s all over but the cryin’,” he said.
“Yes – all over but the cryin’,” echoed Paul.

  • I note that the archaic quoth is invariably used in VS inversion. You cannot say he quoth, only quoth he. – tchrist Nov 24 '12 at 19:02
  • Any idea why "said John" is unremarkable, but "said he" is archaic/literary? – FumbleFingers Nov 24 '12 at 19:06

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