a laughing matter: dialogue tags

I had an email from a very irritated reader:


I am three quarters of the way through your book “Tied to the Tracks” which I think is a good book however I am so irritated, no more than that.. infuriated, that I almost threw your book across the room.  The reason for my angst…your stupid description of a laugh.   “burped a laugh”?…”hiccuped a laugh”?  For God’s sake.  I have never heard a person ‘hiccup a laugh’ or ‘burped a laugh’. Maybe you could get away with the description once but when it is repeated 2 orthree times in a book …geez.


If I may confess: on reading this, I hiccuped a laugh.

Only the serious know how to truly laugh


Now I’ll be serious. I’ve had this discussion before.  There is a contingent of people who are very adament — even passionate — about the way the word laugh is used. It seems that for purists, a laugh must stand alone. You can’t do anything while you’re laughing. You can’t talk, for example, while you’re laughing, or at least, this is the claim. I talk while I’m laughing all the time, but to claim that a character is doing so offends some readers.


In fact, biologists are pretty clear on the fact that there is more than one kind of laughter. One kind is stimulous driven, and other other is self-generated and strategic.


Laughter that occurs during everyday social interaction in response to banal comments and humorless conversation is now being studied. […] The unstated issue is whether such laughter is similar in kind to laughter following from humor.

[…] neuropsychological and behavioral studies have shown that laughter can be more than just a spontaneous response to such stimuli. Around 2 million years ago, human ancestors evolved the capacity for willful control over facial motor systems. A

s a result, laughter was co-opted for a number of novel functions, including strategically punctuating conversation, and conveying feelings or ideas such as embarrassment and derision.

Humans can now voluntarily access the laughter program and utilize it for their own ends, including smoothing conversational interaction, appeasing others, inducing favorable stances in them, or downright laughing at people that are not liked.


Gervais, Matthew and David Sloan Wilson “The Evolutions and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.” Quarterly Review of Biology, Dec. 2005.

Even without scientific studies, it seems to me a matter of simple human intuition that there are many kinds of laughter and that voluntary laughter   can be used for a variety of purposes. A laugh can sound like a hiccup or a burp or a bray, most usually because there’s a message that goes along with it.


So I don’t get the outrage. Everybody has pet peeves and they are under no obligation to be logical or rational, but I don’t even get where this strong reaction to the use of the word laugh comes from. Anybody want to enlighten me?



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