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Vocab Lab: "Said Words," She Ventured

The word said has an elegant, indispensable simplicity. It's a mainstay of the journalist's art: "Five out of five editors find the noun form of the word 'overwhelm,' currently in vogue among the nation's life coaches, completely unacceptable," said Dr. Carla Ridge, founder of SSOUON (the Society to Stamp Out the Use of Overwhelm as a Noun). And in that context, exclusive use of "said" is appropriate and welcome.

DIGRESSION: There is no room in any sort of nonfiction writing for the construction "they said." (I am pained to admit that I have twice been hornswoggled into writing quotes for rock bands whose members felt they must speak as one. The results were tragic on both occasions.) Unless you're talking about those twins in "The Shining" — "Come play with us, Danny" — there is virtually no instance in which "they said" makes sense.

Repetition of "he said" can get pretty dull, however, when you're telling a story, which can be disastrous when you're using that story as a means of promoting an artist or selling a product or service. So when "said" starts sounding tired, I refer to my trusty list of "said words."

It's actually called "Appendix 6: Writer's Helper," though I'm sorry to say I don't know its origin. When I started working in publishing, a colleague bestowed upon me those four typewritten pages of vocab gold.

The beauty of the said words is that each confers a unique variation of editorial intent; they all mean "said," but each provides a singular nuance. Sometimes a said substitute is subtle, preferring not to call attention to itself: "he stated," "he added," "he continued," "he affirmed," "he allowed," "he asserted," "he contended," "he maintained," "he observed," "he remarked," "he commented," "he noted," "he determined," "he related," "he recalled," "he remembered," "he recollected," "he recounted."

Sometimes a said stand-in packs a wallop, driving a point home like John Henry raging against the machine: "he proclaimed," "he declared," "he expounded," "he exclaimed," "he pronounced." Sometimes it reinforces the mood of the quote for which it provides attribution: "he scoffed," "he confessed," "he insisted," "he complained," "he criticized," "he revealed," "he lamented," "he confided."

Some are utilitarian: "he explained," "he clarified," "he pointed out," "he indicated," "he confirmed," "he reiterated," "he concurred," "he emphasized," "he concluded," "he informed," "he reported," "he speculated," "he theorized," "he elaborated." And some are writerly: "he hazarded," "he enthused," "he quipped," "he mused," "he volunteered," "he averred," "he surmised," "he elucidated," "he opined," "he postulated," "he posited," "he illuminated," "he echoed," "he rhapsodized."

Alas, in my world — the nonfiction world — I cannot indulge in "he snorted," "he hissed," "he spat," "he whispered," "he screamed," "he wheezed," "he cried," "he whined," "he uttered," "he stammered" and their ilk. Nor, sadly, can I abuse said words for poetic effect, as Ring Lardner (pictured) did so brilliantly when he wrote "Shut up, he explained" in his 1920 book The Young Immigrants, or as Lynda Obst did so dryly in the title of her 1997 Hollywood memoir, Hello, He Lied. (Something you should not indulge in: "he laughed." This nonsensical cliché is almost as stilted as "they said.")

Fortunately, you don't have to be a literary lion to have your way with said words. If you season judiciously with them, your writing will be much tastier — and thus more effective — than the old "he said/she said."

For more said words, click here.

(What are your favorite said words? Leave a comment below!)


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 16th 2008, 7:07 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
There is another school of thought that says 'said' is SO bland as to be invisible and therefore inoffensive. Experienced readers register the name attached to the tag and move on. Many of the alternatives to 'said' have the undesirable effect of interrupting the reader's flow.

On the basis of 'show not tell', one solution that writers increasingly employ is to identify who is speaking by an 'action tag', not a 'speech tag'.

Thus:

'Do you have any chilled beer?' Roger inquired.

becomes:

Roger opened the fridge door and peered inside. 'Any chilled beer?'

The mood of the speaker can be conveyed in the action or in the words of the speech. If he's angry or impatient, Roger can open the fridge and sweep aside the neat piles of yogurts, and/or he can say 'Don't you have any chilled beers in this stupid fridge?'

And so the identity of the speakers and their mood can be conveyed within the body of the story, within the actions and speeches, whereas speech tags remove the reader, if only for a moment, out of the story to listen to the narrator identify objectively the speakers and their moods.

Having said that, endless action tags can get as tiresome as a page of speech tags, so the best solution of all is a judicious mix of speech tags and action tags.

Geoff A (UK)
Monday June 16th 2008, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Maxey B. (Midland, PA)
I agree the use of "said" can become boring if the word "said" is used throughout a story. A writer must become aware that other words that substitute "said" must be carefully chosen; the theme of the story altered that the reader's comprehension now becomes confused and tired of wading through your piece and moves on to an easier and more understandable story.
Monday June 16th 2008, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Diane F.
Geoff A (UK) writes:

"Having said that, endless action tags can get as tiresome as a page of speech tags, so the best solution of all is a judicious mix of speech tags and action tags."

I totally agree with his examples. My only cavil is the use of "having said that"; perhaps this is merely a personal annoyance, but it such an overused phrase. One already knows what has been said. Redundant. Sorry, Geoff. (Loved your exposition, though).

Monday June 16th 2008, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I find this article and Geoff's comment invaluable . . . though I once worked with a reporter who refused to use any speech tags save "said." At work now on a first novel (my first book a memoir) I have been stymied by the need for other said words, utilizing the action tag judiciously, and relying on the reader to recognize the "who" who is saying what. (Hmmm. Who Who? Sounds like an owl) Any suggestions?
Monday June 16th 2008, 7:44 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Anonymous, I firstly wrote 'Having opined that' but I wondered if you'd get my weird Brit humour, so I changed it to 'said' and hoped the whole phrase would be SO bland as to be invisible!

Beryl, one suggestion is to write it as a play, then you can do this:

JACK: I love you, Mrs Allenby.

MRS ALLENBY (SMIRKING): I know. I've always known.

etc.

Another suggestion. Have you ever gone through a chapter or two of a book written by a writer you admire, and marked down the action and speech tags he or she uses? I did it once with a popular children's author (Madeleine Somebody?) and it was very helpful.

A third suggestion (the first wasn't 100% serious) is to write it anyhow and then get yourself an editor. In the unedited draft of my novel there were 900 'saids'. By the time my editor had finished with me, I'd pared them down to 300, an average of just over one 'said' per page, which is bearable. She would suggest where she thought an action tag begged to be used, that kind of thing.

Geoff A



Wednesday July 2nd 2008, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Belinda J.
Has anyone noticed a trend in "news" stories lately to use the word "admit" when it's not necessarily appropriate? It particularly irritates me when it implies that the speaker or speakers should feel guilty about whatever it is they're sharing. As in, "More than half of working women admit to spending less than three hours a day communicating directly with their toddlers." So what's to "admit"? Maybe they're getting the kid up, fed and dressed; dropping them off at preschool; working for a living; picking the kiddo up at 5:30; feeding her, bathing her, playing Candyland with her, reading her a story and putting her to bed at a reasonable hour; and getting up and doing it again the next day. How does the writer or editor know that at least SOME of these women aren't PROUD of the life they're living? I've also seen "admit" in other inappropriate contexts, but this one stuck with me for some reason. Bet you can guess why...

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