Vocab activities for your classroom

"Said": Outlaw or Verb of Choice?

Some writing students are taught that there is a four letter word that they should avoid using in their writing: S-A-I-D. They are cautioned that if they repeat the use of said (or say) for attributing quotes or for introducing dialogue, that this repetition will bog down their writing and bore their readers.

Instead of enforcing this hard-and–fast rule in your writing classroom, train your students to base their decision on repeating or avoiding said on the intent and style of a particular piece of writing. In fact, when writing a news article, say is often the verb of choice when it comes to quote attribution.

Here is what journalism professor James Glen Stovall has to say about using said:

Said is a word that connotes only the fact that words were spoken or written. It says nothing about the way the words were spoken, the circumstances of the utterance, or the attitude of the speaker. The word is a modest one, never calling attention to itself. It can be used repeatedly without disruption to the writing. Consequently, there are few real substitutes for said. There are words you can use in its place, however, when it is proper for you to do so.

                                      —James Glen Stovall on JPROF

 After reading Stovall's take on said, I decided to head to a news article in The New York Times to analyze its verb variety with VocabGrabber. I copied and pasted a news story about the technology company Apple ("Flush With Cash, Apple Plans Buyback and Dividend") into the VocabGrabber text box and clicked "Grab Vocabulary."

I then chose the "List View" option and sorted the results by "Occurrences" to see which words appeared most frequently in the news article. With a click of the mouse, I discovered that not only did said and say appear in the top six words in terms of occurrences, but forms of say appear 19 times in the article.

Ironically, the appeal of said for many writers and journalists is its invisibility. It remains neutral and merely connects a quote to its speaker. There are times, however, when writers prefer other, more loaded, verbs of attribution; this is where the Visual Thesaurus can come in handy. If you display the word map for say, and then click on some of its meanings (i.e., "express in words"; "report or maintain"; "express a supposition"), students can easily see that all of the synonyms for say are not interchangeable.


By clicking on the various meanings of say, students can discover there are a few neutral alternatives for say (like state or declare),but the vast majority of other synonyms imply something extra about the speaker's intentions – like speculate, assert or allege. It's not as if students won't find those less impartial verbs in news articles, but they should realize that when they do encounter them, the writer has chosen to make an observation or judgment by using those loaded verbs instead of merely reporting "who said what."

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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 3rd 2012, 1:53 AM
Comment by: Tweety (Brisbane Australia)
That is very useful, Thankyou
Tuesday April 3rd 2012, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
This article is a keeper! When I taught junior high school English, a favorite assignment was for each student (or each team) to write down one alternative to "said" for each letter of the alphabet (announced, boasted, cried, declared ...). Then we discussed the results as a class - it was fun and mind-opening for the kids, but I also told them that sometimes "said" is a good choice, too. Some teachers do get pretty militant in their denunciation of that word; my niece's teacher had the kids loudly chant with her the battle cry "Said is Dead! Said is Dead!" and the word would get the red-pen treatment if it appeared in a student's writing. At least that's what my niece claimed, stated, alleged, described ...

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday April 3rd 2012, 1:59 PM
Comment by: Gary T.
As a former journalist and newspaper editor, I have seen unhappy examples in which a citizen reporter tried to use a different word for every attribution. We told everyone at the newspaper to use "said," rather than a dog's breakfast of alternatives. "Said" is, as you wrote, neutral, and readers cruise right through the word without losing a beat. We did allow occasional alternatives, when appropriate.
I don't agree that "declare" is neutral. To me, it is somewhat heraldic.
"State" I just never liked. It's a personal thing. I think "stated" does far more to jam up a sentence than "said."
Monday April 9th 2012, 4:30 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Elmore Leonard has another point of view. Rule #3 in his 10 rules of writing, "Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue."

Tuesday April 10th 2012, 8:35 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Agreed! When I was an eighth-grade teacher, it was not uncommon for the writing assignment to direct students to avoid the use of say and said. What happened? The insertion of murmured or alleged where it did not make sense. As a teacher, I was perplexed myself, sometimes unable to find a phrase more suitable than he said / she said. Your post clears that up nicely.

(On the positive side, this showed me whether the student actually knew the word, or was randomly selecting from a thesaurus--that little tip guided my vocabulary instruction)

PS. VocabGrabber is a fabulous tool


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