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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10 Replies to “a laughing matter: dialogue tags”

  1. Well, no I can’t enlighten you I’m afraid, as I actually agree with you.
    Involuntary spontaneous laughter that erupts out of a person can often sound weird, like a burp or a hiccup – or any number of strange noises. I’m sure most of us at sometime have maybe tried to hold our laughter in lest we offend or interrupt someone…only for it to come out in an almighty gush that sounds strange and invokes others to laugh at it. In my opinion, it is this type of laughter that you were aiming at with your book.

    How boring would a book be if the writer simply stated that a person “laughed.” How would you convey the exact mood of the situation you are relating without the little descriptive details like that? I can’t imagine being so annoyed with a relatively minor detail of an otherwise enjoyable book that I would email the author to complain. I have just bought “Tied to the tracks” and am looking forward to starting it more than ever after finding out here about some of the humour inside!

    1. Maggie — You know, it’s okay if you find something that doesn’t work for you in any of my stuff. I have favorite authors who have tics that annoy me, but I read them anyway. I was surprised that the reader was irritated enough to write to me about this, but only surprised. Not insulted.

  2. Well, I actually had somewhat the same reaction (although not to throw the Kindle across the room ;-) and don’t consider myself a ‘purist’ with a bug for the word ‘laugh.’

    Actually, I think it’s (1) the repeated use and (2) the use of ‘hiccup’ or ‘burp’.

    For me, it wasn’t so much the mode of description as it was a repeated behavior — almost a character tic. If I’m not mistaken, it was usually Angie who was hiccuping or burping, and after a few repeats she never seemed to laugh any other way. (I didn’t count instances, but that’s the impression that stuck.)

    The other thing is, the sound of a hiccup or a burp is distinctive so you have to stop and think about it as relating to laughter. I could not figure out whether it was supposed to sound like a burp, or whether it just came out like a burp — involuntary, a rush of breath.

    A bark, a bray, a burble, a giggle, a guffaw, a hoot, a dry laugh, a soft laugh — you hear/read that all the time, so you take it for granted, kind of like the word ‘say.’

    It’s strange the sorts of things that interrupt the dream when you are reading, but this did it for me.

    Liked the book, though. I don’t think the description of laughter did any damage to the storytelling.

    1. I think I probably repeated that for Angie because it’s what I heard in my head. Clearly it’s unusual enough that it caught you up, which is not the idea, of course. But you can’t win ’em all.

      1. Exactly — there are so many readers out there who are tuned to so very different things, I can’t see how an author could be expected to anticipate how certain words would strike in every case.

        I was a little surprised someone other than me picked up on this, actually. I’m a bit of a word nerd.

  3. Dear Rosina, I must admit that I have noticed you using this description all through your books – in the Wilderness stories, and in your modern books. Elizabeth, Julia, and Lily do it too. In Tied to the Tracks it was the most noticeable, and I wondered whether it reflected Angie’s suppression of her emotions, specifically her desire for John, which kept involuntarily escaping her. It jerks me out of the story because I am highly suggestible and I hate hiccupping – so I feel physically uncomfortable for the person described.

  4. Huh! Didn’t notice any such tic. Just laughing. People laugh in lots of different ways; one person will also laugh in lots of different ways. Although I don’t really care to hear someone braying as they laugh.

    To me, a hiccup is so involuntary that a person who is usually in control but hiccup laughs is someone who is having to let go, at least for that moment. So Angie should definitely hiccup laugh.

    Oh well. Different strokes, I guess.

  5. I did notice that description, and while it is not one that I would use it did conjure for me the idea of a laugh escaping that one is trying to keep in. I wonder if offense was taken to the word “burp.” Some people just don’t like that word, or maybe don’t like the conotation of a laugh being associated with gas escaping from one’s tummy. We all have our peeves, don’t know that I would ever be bothered enough to write a complaint though.

  6. I didn’t notice the repetitive use of those terms in any of your books. But I did burp a laugh when I read your reply to the irritated reader.

  7. Holy Jebus. I’m sorry, but my reaction to this is rolling my eyes and thinking that this person needs to take a chill pill. Infuriated her enough to want to throw the book?!?! Relax man!

    To me, “hiccuped a laugh” or burp and whatnot, was sort of an imagery… It also brings variety to the simply boring “laugh”.

    All this to say that the mere fact that this person wrote you about it astonishes me. She/he obviously has some issues. Who gets mad about something like this?

    End of rant :)

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