Said vs. Says in Quotation Attributions
Let’s face it: Readers probably don’t care much whether an article or story attributes quotations with “says” or “said.” Nor do many care whether it comes before or after the name: said Jones, Jones said -- it just doesn’t have a big effect on the reader.
Yet, to me, it’s becoming a bigger issue every day.
When I was first learning to edit, it was at a publication where very specific views on both matters reigned: The first was that newspaper writing should aim to be conversational – real-world language that doesn’t draw attention to itself but that downplays itself in order to better serve the message.
That was the reason we put “said” after the name, unless there was a reason not to. In everyday conversation people don’t say things like, “Said my friend, mall parking is free.”
Regardless of the verb, English shows a strong preference for placing a verb after the subject in declarative sentences. So even though you could sometimes say, “Drove John,” chances are you’ll always opt for “John drove.”
As for “said” versus “says,” the former is usually more precise. “Says” is present tense and describes an ongoing action. So when you’re reporting something someone said in the past and just once, “said” is more logical.
So I edit according to these principles. And, the more I do, the more invested in them I become. It’s especially annoying to me that, when writing feature articles, many writers never, ever, ever put the “said” after the name. Every attribution is “said Wilson.”
Obviously, the when a modifying noun or phrase follows the quotation attribution, "said" works best when it comes first:
… said Wilson, author of three math textbooks.
… said Wilson, the company’s president and CEO.
… said Wilson, who saw the accident from his balcony.
In those cases, you need to place the modifying phrase next to the thing in modifies, "Wilson."
One more point about “said” and “says”: Consistency is important, but it shouldn’t trump logic. If you’re writing something using the “Wilson says” form, make "says" your default choice except when you want to emphasize that it was said in the past and just once. Likewise, if you’re writing in the “Wilson said” style, stick with “saids” everywhere unless you’re really quoting something he says repeatedly.
Whatever you do, don’t get irked if an editor changes it. We can be a little rigid on this matter. Ahem.