Think about conversations you have had with a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of situations. Think about conversations you have overheard between other people. How did you know what was meant in the conversations? How did you understand not only the meaning of the words but also the feelings of the speaker? You may have used a number of devices and methods to help you.
First, you were seeing the speaker. What was his/her physical posture like? What did his/her face look like? What were his/her hands doing? What gestures did he/she use? Observe closer. Was he/she sweating? Was he/she pale? Flushed? Was his/her head up or down? Did he/she look you straight in the eye or was he/she looking away? How close to you was he/she standing? What were his/her facial expressions like?
Second, you were listening to the speaker’s voice. Was it steady? Was it high pitched or low pitched? Was the speech full of hesitation? Did the voice change at any point in the conversation?
Third, you were listening to the actual words spoken. What did the words mean—their denotation? Did all the words seem to fit together? Were some words used differently then you are accustomed to hearing them used? Did the words seem to fit what you already knew about the person speaking them? Did the words seem to fit the situation? Did the words raise questions in your mind about what was meant? Did the words seem appropriate for the speaker?
Fourth, you were using the first three to come to a conclusion about the conversation—by adding up the three parts you were able to question whether the words were supposed to be taken literally or if there was a different meaning intended.
But what if you weren't physically present? There is a difference between experiencing someone’s saying “I feel wonderful” and being able to verify that or interpret that or reject that because you are right there, a part of the conversation or a direct observer of the conversation, and reading “I feel wonderful,” he said. When you read that statement, you have fewer tools to evaluate it. A good writer has to provide clues to the reader that will give the reader some of the same experience that he would have if he were really a part of the conversation.
One way to help the reader is to use specific words to paint vivid, detailed pictures. Replace the general with the exact. One such word that needs replacing is the word “said.” Just telling me that a person said something gives me no information to enable me to understand what is going on.
What do people really do when they “say” things? Here are some of the things that they do---
Confide, breathe, whisper, hint, insinuate, infer, intimate, suggest, present, bestow, plead, allege, proffer, submit, demonstrate, observe, evince, illustrate, manifest, proclaim, disclose, divulge, offer, lay out, reveal, add, unveil, note, express, phrase, put, state, disclose, tell, report, enunciate, announce, note, declare, emphasize, proclaim, pronounce, imply, communicate, utter, bring out, chime in, declare, deliver, comment, remark, cite, quote, recite, repeat, affirm, assert, aver, avow, protest, indicate. They also groan, giggle, titter, laugh, cry, scream, yell, shout, chortle, chuckle, guffaw, snicker, murmur, vocalize, mutter, report, roar, snap, yelp, bawl, cry, hiss, howl, whine, yelp, cajole, petition, shriek, screech, shrill, sneer, joke, ridicule, taunt, drone, pontificate, lecture and inform. (If you like your words in alphabetical order, try the list below.)
Using these words allows us to form a mental picture of what really was being “said.” It tells us how the reader said something and possibly even why. These words add “sound” to the muteness of pen on paper.
So, one way to bury said forever is to substitute a more specific, more vivid word. Another way is to use description to let us know what is going on, and then give us the direct words of the speaker without a “said” word.
He leaned close to me, so close that I could feel his breath stirring my eyelashes. His eyes bored straight into mine. I could feel his right hand, still holding the knife, caress my cheek. “I want the money now.”
“I want the money now,” he threatened.
“I want the money now,” he growled menacingly.
He stood uncertainly in front of the desk. His nervousness betrayed itself in the rhythmic brushing of his hand up and down his thigh. He wasn’t really looking at me but at some point over my shoulder. His voice, when it finally emerged, held a note of quiet desperation. “I want the money now.”
“I want the money now,” he pleaded.
“I want the money now,” he begged.
“I want the money now,” he whispered shakily.
Become intimately acquainted with a dictionary and thesaurus. There are thousands of words locked up between the covers yearning to breath free—break their bonds!
Here lies Said
Buried and Unsung
Rest in Peace
Words to Replace Said:
Cooed cried criticized
Ran at the mouth
Zinsser disagrees with you. He writes that the reader's eye skips over "said," and that replacing it with fancier words takes attention away from the dialogue. (Or something, I can't find the book right now.)
Sorry MII but when we skip over "said" we do so because the word has become nothing but a place holder, providing no specific information other than something was verbalized. The replacement words are not "fancier" words--they are words that offer specific information on how to decode how something was verbalized. They offer context to the written word. They replace the missing visual/aural clues of tone and expression and posture. Far from taking away from the dialogue, they add interpretive signposts so we actually know what was being "said."
Re Zinsser, Zinsser emphasizes word economy. He also makes the point that people write around what they are trying to say because they don't go looking for one word that could take the place of the 40 they are using. Replacing said with a more specific word does not "violate" Zinsser's suggestions; it actually supports them by providing one word to replace many.
But the great authors of the past have used 'said' like crazy! I remember noticing this. EB White, Dickens - you name 'em, they used 'said'.
I put your list into a Word file to reference while I'm editing my next book.
What if how they said it isn't important? It gets tiresome, just like writers who describe every character's outfit.
I came across this today:
Anyway, I'm thinking of closing down my blog and just hanging out over here.
No! No closing down your blog, although you're more than welcome to come and visit here whenever you'd like.
First, I love Lederer. If you have never read any of his books then you are in for a treat. Start with Anguished English.
I agree with Lederer that choosing the simplest word that will give the meaning you want is the best idea. But if you read his article, he doesn't repeat words over and over. The words on the list above don't qualify as sesquipedalian.
Sometimes how someone said something isn't important to understand what is going on precisely. But more times it is. Words are supposed to be painting pictures in our minds about what is being described, about what is being said and done. Using general terms over and over gives us a black and white snapshot--we see the picture but the contrast and detail and "life" is missing. Choosing to vary our words, to be more precise is like a color photo--more vivid, more "alive."
Thank you for this list. My English teacher from my last year in high school hated when people overused certain words, "said," being one of many on the list. Although I know other words are better, I often cannot think of another word to use.
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