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All posts for the month April, 2013

Said Is Not Dead

Published April 30, 2013 by Elsa Pla
Paseo La Princesa in Old San Juan: a lovely place to sit and write.

Paseo La Princesa in Old San Juan: a lovely place to sit and write.

It’s taken me a bit longer than planned to get back to my blogs, sorry! I had a great time in Houston and San Juan visiting family and friends, but when I got back, I had to take a vacation from my vacation, if you know what I mean.

Today I’d like to share something that’s been bugging me. As guest teacher and writing tutor, I visit many schools and have access to different writing resources. This school year I’ve noticed a common practice that troubles me. Writing teachers are labeling words such as “said,” “went,” and “got” as “dead words” and are insisting that students not use them in their writing. I’ve seen “Said Is Dead” posters on bulletin boards, in school catalogs, and on teacher websites. I understand the reasoning behind the gimmick: teachers are pushing students to use more high-level words in their writing, and that’s a good thing. But to tell students that perfectly serviceable words such as “said” are “dead,” is wrong. As it happens so often in education, we’ve missed the point and have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

So what’s the point? Good writing is about clarity, balance, and ear. We do want our students’ writing to be interesting and exciting (containing vivid verbs, precise nouns, artful adjectives, etc.), but we also want it to be succinct and clear. We want them to avoid redundancy, expand their vocabulary, and learn to choose the words that best express what they’re trying to say — words that match their mode of writing, their audience, and their voice, and define their style. What we don’t want is for students to substitute simple words that provide clarity for fancy words that muddle the writing, just because they’re trying to impress the teacher. All words are serviceable, depending on how they are used. The point is to learn to choose the ones that best serve the purpose of the writing.

Here’s a paragraph from the award-winning children’s book Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata:

“Lynn pulled at the dog’s tail and shouted at me, “Run, Katie, run!” I ran, hearing the dog growling and Lynnie grunting. When I got to the house, I turned around and saw the dog tearing at Lynn’s pants as she huddled over into a ball. I ran inside and looked for a weapon. I couldn’t think straight. I got a milk bottle out of the fridge and ran toward Lynn and threw the bottle at the dog. The bottle missed the dog and broke on the street. The dog rushed to lap up the milk.”

Notice how the author balances vivid verbs with blander ones. By doing so, the stronger verbs (their actions) stand out. Also, the simple, clear vocabulary matches the voice of the narrator (a young girl) and makes the book easy to read and understand.

Another misconception is that “said” should be avoided in dialogue attribution and that the attributive verb should be supported by an adverb. (For example: “It’s a puppy!” she blurted excitedly.) Dialogue attributives (if needed) should be unobtrusive. “Said” is okay in most cases, and adverbs should be avoided (the dialogue by itself should convey the desired emotion).

Here’s how Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) explain it:

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.” Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.

I’ll close with the following advice from hyphenman.com:

Stick with “said” with occasional exceptions for variety. Avoid substitutes that call attention to themselves or sound forced or clunky.

“Don’t make the attribution word do all the work. The best alternative is to provide the context that makes it clear who is speaking and thereby omit any attribution.”

Fellow writing teachers: You are awesome at what you do. I learn something new from you every time I visit your classrooms. Now please consider this: certain words are blander than others, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dead” and have no place in good writing. So please don’t throw the little babies out with the bath water!

Enough said. Now, to get back to my work. 🙂