“Said” By Any Other Name Is…


It’s not often you’ll find me writing about writing, but I just read another article dissing authors who use words other than ‘said’ in their stories. And it annoys the snot out of me when I see that. Especially when the authors of articles such as this one suggest that writers who use the other words use them because their dialog is weak.

To that I say…baloney!

The very first day in my very first writing class the teacher had all of the students, one at a time, walk to the board and write an alternate word for….said. And we couldn’t stop until we reached one hundred of them.

Long story short, being extremely offended again at the insinuation that writers who use those other words are lazy or not talented, I headed off to Project Gutenberg and looked through a couple of classics. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) and Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) to be exact. I skimmed the first 10 pages of each book.

This part might be a little boring but I’m going to list every alternate word (and phrase) they used for said.

Mr. Dickens wrote:

cried (twice), pleaded, timidly explained, muttered, exclaimed (three times), faltered, and repeated. This was in addition to using said so many times my jaw dropped…and there was no dialog at all on the tenth page.

Ms. Bronte was a whole lot more creative in this area and used:

interrupted (twice), demanded, soliloquized, growled, shouted (twice), asked, muttered (twice), remarked (twice), repeated, exclaimed, gasped, replied, observed, growled, continued (twice), hemmed, snapped, demanded, answered, began, ejaculated mentally, hallooed responsively, commenced again, observed scornfully, hastened to reply, was the answer to, was my reply, was the reflection suggested by this compound order, and finally, I could not help exclaiming.

Just a hair off the subject here, both of these authors used the dreaded words ending in ly. Heaven forbid a modern writer pen ‘timidly explained,’ or ‘hallooed responsively’? And all of these no-no’s were in the first ten pages of these classics.

So I ask you, anyone who has managed to make it to this point in my case for alternate words for said…

If the greatest authors throughout history used them – in books that have been read for more than a century…why is it NOT okay for today’s writers to use them?

My theory? Actually I have two.

First, publishers love rules (and formulas for the perfect novel…only x+y+z=a good book). Second, it’s just easier for them to impose those rules on anyone hoping to see their work in print.

Everything has to be like the drive-thru at your local fast food joint. You might be getting a food-like substance, and it will satisfy your hunger, but you’re not going to get the nutrition and enjoyment you would from a home-cooked meal. So by shoving  all of their rules down our throats, we’ll certainly write decent stories…but we can probably kiss goodbye any dreams of writing classics that will still be on ‘to be read’ lists a hundred years from now.


I decided two examples wasn’t enough, so I looked through a few more books, just the first couple of pages…or at approximately two pages worth of dialog since some didn’t start until further in.

The Count of Monte Cristo:  cried, replied (2 times), inquired (2 times), asked, shouted

War and Peace:  replied (twice), added, continued, asked

Around the World in 80 Days:  asked (2 times), responded, returned (2 times), muttered, replied

Sense and Sensibility:  replied (3 times), added

All considered classics, written by respected writers. I wonder where these novels would be today if they’d had to follow current cookie-cutter, fast food rules.

Little Women:  grumbled, sighed, cried (2 times), advised, returned


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8 Responses to “Said” By Any Other Name Is…

  1. jennybeansblog says:

    agreed, sympathized, concurred

  2. Emma says:

    I try to keep it to “said” and “asked” as much as possible.
    I think if there’s too much – he muttered, she exclaimed, they cried, he hissed and so forth, it takes the reader out of the action.

    My first book has so many adverbs that I cringe now when I read it. Oh well, you live, you learn.

    • Kristy K. James says:

      I agree. Too much of anything can be very distracting. For me, it’s repetitive words. I read a novelette by an indie a couple of years ago where the author used ‘coffee’ so many times in space of two pages I wanted to scream. The same can be said of said/alternatives. But for all of the ‘experts’ acting like writers are committing some sort of literary crime by using muttered, exclaimed, etc… it just annoys me.

      Like I told Breeana below, I try to limit my use of those words anyway. However, if I feel like muttered will get my point across better, I’ll use it. 🙂

      The thing that makes me cringe most when I look at my earlier work is my excessive…EXCESSIVE use of exclamation points. I read them now and all I can think is…WHY??? 🙂

      • Emma says:

        Ha ha, I’m glad I’m not the only one who looks back on earlier work and feels a tad embarrassed.
        But we were only starting out. I’m still learning new writing skills every day.

        • Kristy K. James says:

          Oh I’m sure that 99% of us wouldn’t want anyone else to see our earliest works. If mine still existed, I wouldn’t mind reading them again though, but water damage meant a lot of it was thrown away. I really need to find the box with the other stuff though. Sometimes it’s fun to spend a day reading and seeing how far I’ve come…because I, too, learn new things about writing every day.:)

  3. I’ll put my two cents in. 🙂

    In the first five chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “says” (it’s in southern dialect) or said is used more times that I cared to count. Nothing else is used. At all.

    We all know there are people we need to not listen to about writing. Authors have to learn to ignore a certain number of voices.

    Every author has to bring his or her own voice to their writing, and some voices have more varied speech tags and adjectives and adverbs. If a writer is confident in their own voice, they have to ignore the dissenting ones.

    Some people are Charles Dickens. Some are Emily Bronte.

    However, on the subject of lots and lots of different speech tags and adverbs: First of all, I very rarely EVER have seen even the “only use said” people say to never use replied or asked or some of the “softer” ones, Sometimes you are asking or replying, and “said” would sound weird (IF you need any speech tag at all).

    Most of the examples you posted above were quite free of adverbs and “ejaculated” (really, imagine using that one in 2013).

    If a particular writer is plagued by reviewers and beta readers who comment on the use of things other than said, though … I personally think it’s worth looking into. Because if a reader is busily admiring (or panning) your varied use of speech tags, and oohing (or vomiting) over the variety of adverbs you know — what they’re not doing is spending their time lost in your story.

    The point of learning to minimize your speech tags has nothing to do with a formula, it has to do with making them DISAPPEAR, so the reader never notices them at all.

    Some people are such gifted storytellers that they can make large numbers of people disappear into stories no matter what words they use. Most of us aren’t quite there.

    As far as teachers and the “said is dead” lessons … God knows I love teachers — but most of them aren’t writers. Poor teachers gotta have something to GRADE, and highlighting every use of “said” in a student’s story is … it’s at least something to go on that isn’t subjective. Really, I love them, but nothing has ever made brain fluid leak out of my ears the way that arguing about how to grade writing in a group of teachers did.

    • Kristy K. James says:

      Oh I’m not advocating using said…or any other alternative word…excessively. I was merely blowing off some steam…and using classics to point out that not everyone who considers themselves an expert on writing needs to be listened to. It was that ‘tone’ that offended me. As in if you use anything else, you’re a lousy writer (not in those exact words, but that’s basically what they were saying).

      Bronte used words that made me giggle…and no way would they ever make their way into my stories…although I seriously love ‘hallooed responsively.’

      Anyway, I’ve not had any complaints over my use of said…or any of its relatives…so I’m not worried about it. I just really hate seeing articles like that.

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