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Tom Swifties and the Art of the Dialogue Tag

June 28, 2020 by in category Quarter Days by Alina K. Field, Writing tagged as , ,

One of the rules of contemporary fiction is that all words ending in -ly ought to be found in a Word search and banished.

Another rule is to avoid using substitutes for said: no murmurs, grunts, hisses, etc.

But it wasn’t always this way!

In what I always think of as the Golden Age of pulp fiction, an author might get away with a Tom Swifty. Though I have a degree in English and I’ve been to countless writing conferences, I only just learned this term from one of Anne R. Allen’s blog posts.

So what is a Tom Swifty?

In case you don’t have time to link to the Merriam-Webster article here’s the definition:

“A Tom Swifty is a play on words taking the form of a quotation ascribed to Tom and followed by an adverb.”

Or, as Wikipedia says, it’s

“a phrase in which a quoted sentence is linked by a pun to the manner in which it is attributed.”

Tom Swift

Edward Stratemeyer,
A “punny” guy

First published in 1910, the Tom Swift books spanned multiple series, and were written by Edward Stratemeyer and other authors under the pseudonym Victor Appleton. Stratemeyer was also the creator of the Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew books.

I haven’t read Tom Swift, but I grew up with Nancy Drew. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have as many successful book series as Edward Stratemeyer?

Another famous author of commercial fiction used this sort of “punny” literary device: Charles Dickens. Ah, the good old days when authors could have more fun.

Examples, please…

A whole book has been written on the subject, Tom Swifties, by Paul Pease and Bill McDonough. The few copies available start at $40 on Amazon!

But, the Wikipedia article on the subject has a long list of howlers like these:

  • “I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish.
  • “I forgot what I needed at the store,” Tom said listlessly.
  • “I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically.

I could see these working in a humorous cozy mystery!

Do you have a favorite Tom Swifty? Share in the comments below!

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