A Humble Workhorse of a Word: In Praise of 'Said'

Posted on 8th February, 2015


Were you taught at school to avoid using 'said' in your writing? Let me explain why teachers tell you that.

It isn't because there's anything wrong with 'said.' It's because teachers have to teach children from a young age to use a variety of vocabulary and find words that convey precise meaning.

Think about it. That's quite a tall order.

And so we come to the first reason why 'said' is a wonderful word. It has umpteen alternatives, all of which convey precise meaning. Children are already familiar with these words; and when they write stories, they have ample opportunity to use their new skill.

And that is why teachers tell you not to use 'said.' Ta da!

In the world of adult writing, it's different, because – and here we come to the second reason why 'said' is wonderful – 'said' is invisible. You could read it or write it a dozen times on every page without its ever jarring.

Every time an alternative is used, it isn't invisible. Nothing wrong with that – in moderation. But the more times alternatives are used, and the wider their variety, the more visible they become.

I'm thinking of a novel I read some years ago in which the author seemed determined to avoid 'said' at all costs.

The characters asked, answered, replied and exclaimed. They wondered, whispered, chuckled and muttered. They shouted, snorted, cajoled and observed.

And it was all highly visible. Every single one of those verbs (which would have thrilled any primary school teacher) was visible and the more of them there were, the more visible they became. For 'more visible,' read 'more annoying.'

Then, in the middle of an argument, the heroine riposted.

After 200 pages of confirming, suggesting, murmuring and giggling, it was the final, pretentious straw. I closed the book.

Sorry about my little rant, but I hope it's helped illustrate my point. Humble, under-rated 'said' is a dependable workhorse of a word.

And unless you want me to come back and haunt you, please don't ever let your characters do any riposting.


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Comments (6)

Thanks, Jan. I'm busy on a final edit at the moment and I have to say I'm now terribly aware of all the 'saids' and said-alternatives. I'm grateful to you and Jen for reminding me that, if it's obvious who's speaking, you don't need 'said' (or exclaimed, whispered, replied....).
Your post rang so many bells with me, too, Sue. I was an English Teacher Adviser and like you and Wendy, my message to the children I taught was to use a wide range of synonyms for 'said' and an abundance of adjectives. It was such a steep learning curve for me when I started to write my own fiction when I retired from teaching. I still use too many 'said's and have to cut them if it's already clear who's speaking but am hopefully getting better!
A great post.
That's a good point, Jen. 'Said' isn't necessary if it's clear who is speaking. I am working on a final edit at the moment and I too have removed some of the 'saids.'

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Your post also struck a chord with me but for a different reason. I've just gone through a manuscript and removed a number of 'said' references because it was pointed out to me I was both showing and telling. At least, though, my characters weren't 'riposting' (or yelling, crying out, whispering)!

Thanks, as always, for an interesting read.
I know exactly what you mean, Wendy, and I'm sure we're not the only teachers-turned-writers who have had the same revelation. In fact, your comment struck a chord with me because it reminded me of getting the children to count their adjectives at the end of a piece of writing, something they loved doing so much that they carried on doing it for the rest of the school year.

Writing for school and writing for publication are two entirely different beasties. Being a short story writer, Wendy, you must have to be even more disciplined than a novelist.

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.
Your post really struck a chord. I was an English teacher before I became a writer and remember only too well the lessons where I not only taught children to use every word under the sun except 'said' but encouraged them to litter their writing with adjectives (gold star if they used three at once) and as many adverbs as possible. What a shock when I started writing myself and realised that I needed to ignore everything I had been teaching.