It can’t be said enough: Leave ‘said’ alone

Simple, succinct: "said."

Simple, succinct: “said.”

Dear English teachers of North America: Stop it.

Stop teaching the repetitive, boring five-paragraph essay. Stop telling yourself that you teach a writing class, not a grammar class. And to this list of sins a new one can be added, according to the Wall Street Journal: Stop telling your students to stop using “said.”

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. [Leilen] Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

So does the Powell River Board of Education in British Columbia. Its website provides a list of 397 alternatives to the dreaded “said.” They include “emitted,” “beseeched,” “continued,” “sniveled,” and “spewed.”

Dear English teachers, We say things. We say them loudly or softly, we say them slowly or quickly, but we say them. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that.

I am now near the end of another semester of unteaching the idea that uncommon words are what make for interesting writing. “Said,” I mark over and over on writing assignments. “Just ‘said.” Yes, there are occasions when an alternative is acceptable. “Testified” and “shouted” are great, if they are literally correct. Conventional English requires “asked” with questions. But most of the time, any mental energy expended in selecting an alternative to “said’ might be far better applied to more important matters.

The specific fallacy behind the idea that “said” is boring: That a dull quote or paraphrase can be rescued by an unusual verb of attribution. It doesn’t work that way. In a well-written story, verbs of attribution are on about the same level as articles and prepositions. They serve a simple, quiet purpose, taking a back seat to the meat of the sentences. Verbs of attribution should simply connect quotes to the people who said them, and do that duty quietly and efficiently. “Said” does that. “Said,” used repeatedly, sinks into the background. The reader doesn’t dwell on it, anymore than readers dwell on “the” or “of.” Writers don’t seek alternatives for articles or prepositions; there is no need to seek them for verbs of attribution.

In writing dialogue, in fact, good writers drop most of the attribution entirely. If each speaker’s voice is distinctive enough, and the byplay makes sense, readers don’t even need verbs and names to keep track of who’s talking. When a class of words can be replaced by nothingness, one shouldn’t demand that they be very flashy.

Consider these words on the Powell River Board’s list: Defended. Deduced. Demurred. Denied. Denounced. (And that’s just in the D’s.) If the quote itself doesn’t make it obvious that the speaker was defending or deducing or whatever, does the verb of attribution really improve the sentence? They’re the equivalent of the comic who has to end his witty remarks with the explanation, “That was a joke.”

Another fallacy: It is possible to do two things with your mouth at the same time. Look over that list of British Columbian alternatives again. Just starting down the list, you’ll come across these proposed “said” alternatives that are, at least for me, physically impossible to do while issuing understandable words: Laugh. Giggle. Cry. Bawl. Weep. Bark. Wail. Howl.

Third fallacy: Uncommon words make for better writing than common ones. To pick just one counterexample from the BC list: Verbalized. That’ll make for a snappy sentence, won’t it?

That last one’s the serpent responsible for much irresponsible writing advice. My battle for the value of “said” is part of the larger war I wage on flowery writing, long roundabout phrasing and misused words. Misused? Yes, as in “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Every semester I encounter at least one student who has been bamboozled into thinking that fancy words are preferred — advice given without the caveat that it helps to know what those words mean first. I suspect that the motto of some English teachers is “Ah, but a writer’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a thesaurus for?”

It’s content that makes good prose. Words are mostly just the tools we have — not perfect, but the best we have — to deliver that content to our readers. It’s not the number of syllables in a word or the relative frequency of its use that matter; it’s how efficiently they convey as much of our meaning as possible.

And that’s all I have to say (preach, pronounce, declare, explain, submit, suggest, proclaim, make known, contend, enunciate) about that.


  1. By Peter