Monday, May 16, 2011

What's Your Take on the Word "SAID"?

by Susan Berger

Do a search for “said-bookism.” That’s the term of substituting other words for said.
This post is mostly for people who write in the third person voice. 
(There are still some of you out there, right?)
The conventional wisdom tells writers that the word “said” is invisible to reader.
I was taught “said” is best.  Here are three quotes on the subject.
"Unfortunately, an astonishing number of elementary and secondary school teachers, utterly ignorant of good style, instruct their poor students to avoid overusing said. As a result, these poor students think that it's good -- even necessary -- to indulge in "said-book-ism," where the word said is always either replaced or accompanied by an adverb. Nothing is ever simply tagged; it's always replied, whispered, shouted, uttered, remarked, commented, intoned, murmured, wondered, laughed, hissed, muttered; or said bleakly, happily, merrily, snidely, nastily, angrily, loudly, softly, in astonishment, under his breath, with a smile, or ... well, you get the idea. Quite apart from the hilarity that arises from inadvertent Tom Swifties -- "I'm afraid we'll have to amputate," said the surgeon disarmingly -- it is this variety that becomes repetitive and annoying. That's because the reader is constantly being distracted from the dialogue and forced to examine meaningless, uninteresting tags Here is a link to the original lesson 

Kay Dacus: Debunking Writing Myths
When I was in graduate school it was explained this way: readers see “said” or “asked” much like a period or comma.  It’s more like punctuation than anything else, therefore those are unobtrusive.
However, as a reader and editor—and as someone who listens to audio books more than I read actual physical books—I can attest to the fact that “said” dialogue tags get very old very fast if those are the only way the author attributes the dialogue in his/her book.  
Just as we want to look for ways to make our writing stronger when it comes to verb or adverb use, we want to make sure we’re not overusing any words, and that includes the words said and asked, even as dialogue tags.  And the best way to do that is with action and/or introspection laced in with the dialogue.   Here's a Link to the post

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
Here's a link to that post 

That being said (could not resist that one,) a lot of very good writers today are using substitutes for “said”. You don’t have to believe me. Page through some of your favorite books and look for yourself.
For your edification, here is a link to a list of substitutes for “said.”

Please read through them. (you can also download or print the list)

Please comment. Are you Pro “said” or Con “said”?

Can you add to the list?


  1. Far out Sue! I am a descriptive tag person myself. I think it adds color and interest. The first time I read Elmore Leonard and saw all those 'saids', I thought that's a lot of repetition -- also supposed to be a bad thing. Interesting post!

  2. "I belong to Camp Said," he said metaphorically consulting his dictionary for the meaning of the word metaphor.
    Despite Himself

  3. I'm totally pro-said. I get distracted when I read books that use more inventive tags.

    Great post!

  4. Me, too for Camp Said. I agree that the word fades into the background so that the dialog is what stands out.

  5. I use a lot of dialog and if I stay in the 'Said' camp, I think my book would look very 'said' heavy.

  6. I was taught said is invisible. But rather than use said, why not an action tag. To me that's more invisible. EX: "Sam,I said come here." Marsha sat down. Why didn't that boy listen to her?
    You eliminate said or any other comment and show us something about the story beside. Now you don't want to do that all the time either. And don't forget you can have three or four lines of dialogue without any tags at all.
    "Why can't you join us?" Mary hugged the phone between her neck and her shoulder while she peeled the potatoes. (you have to establish who is speaking to begin with)
    "I don't have a sitter. You forget I have kids. I can't just leave them."
    "Oh sorry, yeah, I guess I did forget. So if I can find someone to babysit, will you come?"
    "Honey, if you can find someone to babysit, I'm there with bells on."

    Hope that helps. You can also insert thoughts as tags.

  7. I think balance is key. Even the word 'said' can end up being a distraction if used too much. Using a more colorful word on occasion adds spice to the dialogue.

    I love the list! I can use that. Thanks!

  8. I don't mind a synonym sprinkled in occasionally, but when you absolutely have use an attribution tag I prefer "said" as the rule.

    However, you can usually do without them. Lots of folks make the tags do the heavy lifting like:

    "You don't like them?" John asked, tears forming in his eyes.

    "It's not that I don't, but...I don't deserve them," she admitted.

    How about:

    Tears formed in John's eyes. "You don't like them?"

    "It's not that I don't, but..." Mary closed her eyes and sighed. "I don't deserve them."

    Nary a tag to make a decision over and you can fill out the dialog with action.

  9. As I've said before, I like to interject the occasional answered or nodded for a bit of spice. Sorry Mr. Leonard. You're not correct, and quite frankly, I don't like your writing anyway. But I do like this post! Well done, Susan.

  10. I originally wrote my novel using more descriptive tags. I read a book that said said constantly and it irritated me. I agree with Roseanne. I try to use body language or action to avoid tags. When I can't I use said, but I've got to make myself..
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
    Children's Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2010)

  11. We are asked to use action tags instead of saidisms as much as possible. And if we use the word said/asked/replied those are the only choices. If we want the character to shout, then we need to use dialog and action tags to illustrate that. It's a lot of work to scrub your manuscript of these words (and all the others we aren't allowed to use), but the reader benefits and that's what's most important.

  12. "Said" is anything BUT invisible. A string of said following all the bits of dialog is a huge turn-off and I rarely read further.

    That said, I am also not interested in a lot of gasped, screamed, bellowed, etc. The words and the scene should tell the reader the response. I prefer action tags and leave the dialog to stand on its own wherever possible.

  13. I am all for diversity. There are tomes when the dialogue needs no distraction and said works perfectly. At other times, an action or a reaction tag adds meaning and depth where is is needed and helpful. The trick is knowing when to use said, and when to scrap it and go for an appropriate tag.

    Books with a WOW Factor
    Manuscript Critique Service

  14. I try to avoid too many "said"s, but often there are no choices. "asked" and "replied" are usually okay where they fit. The other word I find very useful is "continued," after I have shown a pause in the flow of speech.

    But you have to use something! To completely leave out all speech tags can lead to very confusing dialog and the reader will get lost.

  15. I usually use "said," but try to do it sparingly as repetition can be annoying. Often it isn't necessary to use any word since each character should have a unique way of talking and beats can show who is speaking. Other words like "answered" or "shouted" are fine once in a while.

  16. "I agree with Margot," Barbara said.

  17. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said. Said.

    There. I said it.
    Says You

  18. Thank you all for your very thoughtful comments. Lately in my reading I have been studying the ways my favorite 3rd person authors deal with said. I am seeing a mix of 1, said, 2. actions between the dialog, and 3. a substitute of said. I also notice both said and the substitute for said VERY OCCASIONALLY contain an adjective. Did any of you download "the list of substitutes for said" included in the post? (Three lines form the end.) I was afraid perhaps no one noticed it was a link to an actual document. This was the first time I ever linked a document to a post and I wanted to know how it worked for the readers.

  19. Aday, I'm with you -- I try to use action tags to avoid the whole thing if I can. Then I use either said, asked, or replied most often .. but sometimes "whispered," "muttered," "murmured," "shouted," or whatever cries out to be used.

  20. I use them sometimes, but just sometimes. I don't agree that they're invisible, and they're the only acceptable choice.

    "Come here," Sue said does not show me how she means it. I get a mental picture that Sue's probably rocking comfortably on her front porch while her kitty purrs in her lap.

    However, Sue might very well be dangling at the end of a swiftly untangling rope and bouncing in the wind that slams into the side of the mountain cliff.

    In that instance if it happens that Sue said, "Come here", how can that show me the drama?

    It should be "Come here!" Sue screamed.

    I want to SEE how Sue SAYS her dialogue. :)

  21. Thanks for the input. I detest said. It 's good to have company in matters of this nature.
    Thank you for the ever entertaining blog. It's one well worth reading.

    Good Writing!

  22. Thank you Maggie, Gillian and Mis Mae. Be sure to download this list of substitutes for "said." It's a useful little tool.

  23. Great post, Sue! And so many really inspired a dialog on this topic and that's awesome.

    Personally, I'm in the "balance" camp. I use said sometimes, alternatives for said sometimes and (often) action rather than dialog tags.


  24. For me it's a combination. Ideally, I agree with Kay Dacus, who gave a great example, BTW, of interweaving action and introspection into dialogue. That said, (an inadvertent example) there will be times when you may have to use a dialogue tag. Then, I'm with Elmore Leonard -- use the invisible said.

  25. I'd rather have strong, interesting dialogue that doesn't need a tag to interpret the nuance for the reader.

  26. I lean towards action tags also. Sounds like it comes down to the choice of the writer. Hmmm...something else to ponder while writing.

  27. I always LET myself use said-substitutes (and adverbs!) when spewing up the rough draft, just in case any of those really will be "the one time" that's okay. But 99% of the time, those get replaced with SAID or actions soon after. (I just recently talked myself back into a few ASKEDs. But only for SOME questions . . .)

  28. P.S. And thanks for the said-substitutes list! The document opened like a charm, and I printed it--just in case. ;D

  29. "I always LET myself use said-substitutes..."

    A recent study published in The New England Journal of Metaphors showed that laboratory rats fed a diet of "said-substitutes" exhibited anomalous literary behaviors such as mis-placed modifiers, gerunds, run-on sentences, subject/verb disagreements and indigestion.

    Blog Substitute

  30. I have heard this before. I think it reminds us, as we slow edit our work, to be conscious of what we are using and when. To use something other than said should be deliberate and thought out.

  31. Very timely post for me, as I've been discussing this very issue with my students. In general, I'm in the pro-"said" camp. I'm really turned off when I read a manuscript filled with synonyms for "said." Instead, I advocate avoiding repetition by using action and gestures, as other commenters have suggested. (I do occasionally use "whispered" or "answered" when appropriate, too.) I think it's also important to read a manuscript aloud when editing. While I try not to overuse "said," I actually put some "saids" in intentionally if I need a beat or pause in the middle of a section of dialogue.

  32. Thanks, Carmela. I find that I when I read now, I am check to see how my favorite authors handle it. Bruce Coville uses substitutes as do Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. Andrew Clement tends to use said. All my romance writers use substitutes. (must be a genre thing)


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