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What's said is said

You never know what is going to engage people’s attention. The other day, I put this question up on Twitter and Facebook: “Who the hell is teaching young writers to use ‘stated’ instead of ‘said?’ ” That provoked quite a response from my long-suffering colleagues in the paragraph trade,* which makes me think that it’s worth the trouble to summarize and codify some of the responses.

The starting point: In attribution, certainly in journalism and probably in fiction as well, said is a neutral word and acceptable and even preferable in nearly all instances. The impulse to use synonyms for it is misguided, leading to what H.W. Fowler disparaged as “elegant variation.” Said suffices.

Now let’s look at the less-attractive options.

Stated: Probably the ear of the corruptible young writer has been influenced by police and court jargon. Stated implies formality and official proceedings, and you are not likely to have much use of it unless you become a cop or a court recorder.

Noted: Are there notes when you speak? If so, are they footnotes or end notes? When you note, do you raise a finger to indicate a superscript?

Added: Added comes in when the writer breaks a chunk of discourse into more digestible parts. That’s fine, but what a speaker says is usually continuous. If she finishes talking, leaves the room, turns and comes back through the door to say something further, then you can write added. Same with continued.

Claimed: Claimed indicates that the speaker has made an assertion that you are not prepared to endorse. If you don’t want to suggest skepticism, don’t use it. Admitted suggests consciousness of guilt.

Explained: Only if a subsequent statement attempts to make clear something obscure in a previous one. And even then, said suffices. Most people can recognize an explanation when they see one.

Declared: Like stated, it suggests a formality that may or may not be relevant in context. Or necessary.

Revealed: Like divulged and disclosed, revealed suggests that something hidden and surprising has been brought to light. Usually there is little or no drama, but a perfectly prosaic utterance for which—you guessed it—said is better.

Exclaimed: Instead use one of the three exclamation points you are permitted in your entire career. Same for blurted.

Related: Suggests that the speaker is a windbag.

Drawled: Damn Yankee.

Averred, avowed, declaimed, declared, opined retorted, sniveled: Now you’re just being silly, or reading Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys books as a child has had an unhealthy influence on you.

Barked, burbled, chirped, chortled, gasped, screeched, snapped, spluttered, wheezed, whined: Put down the thesaurus and nobody gets hurt.

 

*One correspondent said he met in 1972 a stringer who “showed me her list of 120 synonyms for ‘said’ that her Arizona community college j-teacher wanted her to memorize.” At this late date, that teacher is presumably beyond the reach of a malpractice suit but has instead faced divine judgment.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (35)
        

Comments

To the list above, John, allow me to add, "quipped."

Add "commented" to that list," she excalimed.

Oops.
Should read:
"Add 'commented' to that list," she exclaimed.

John, while I join your dislike of the overuse of synonyms for "said" and favor simplicity when it is appropriate, I also favor precision in language. "Answered" is not the same as said. It gives context, a dialogue in which the speaker is prompted. "Whispered" and "shouted" convey volume that has meaning beyond "said." "Explained" conveys complexity (and perhaps confusion among listeners). If we are going to report accurately, we should be free to use precise language. "Said" is always accurate, often appropriate, but always vague and vague is sometimes bad writing and bad journalism.

I view this as akin to the balance in journalism ethics between our principles of reporting the truth and minimizing harm. Sometimes valid principles come into conflict. That is the case in our sometimes-conflicting preference for precise language and simple language.

"While I favor 'said' in most instances, I think 'nearly all instances' is practically a prohibition, and I think that will lead some journalists to write less precisely than they should," Buttry insisted.

My favorite joke that makes fun of synonyms for "said":
"Shut up," he explained.

I find the use of 'stated' as a synonym for 'said' jarring because I think of it as a verb to be used for attributing reported speech only. As in:

He stated that he had been in a drunken coma at the time of the murder.

He continued to state his belief in Santa Claus long after the age of forty.

But not: "Good morning," he stated.

Also, I think reporters should use 'asseverated" from time to time. And perhaps "ejaculated," which has become inexplicably rare.

I think also "stated" and "noted" do have an occasional place; as Steve above notes*, the choice of words convey some of the general tenor and nonverbal intent of the speaker, beyond the words themselves. "Stated" is formal and official - exactly what you want when the spoken message is formal and official in tone.

"The suspect wore red outer garments, oversize shoes and what appeared to be white facial paint at the time of the arrest," officer Gumby stated. He then said, "The guy's a f*ng clown."


* see what I did there?

Sorry, I meant indirect speech, not reported, he admitted sheepishly.

"...said he met in 1972 a stringer..."

Did you really put that time stamp there?

Another for the list: Some of the writers I copyedit have actually used "expressed" as a synonym, as in "'That's a bad idea,' John expressed."

What I think on reading that is probably best left unexpressed.

From high school writing classes and in my years in the business, I have been taught that "said" was good enough. However, I have wondered why people write, "he wondered," instead of "he said, wondering."

By the way, various stylebooks and my teachers also have taught me that people wear suits, but their lawyers file lawsuits (your footnote).

Just yesterday, I encountered "hike" in an AP story -- the writer and editor ignored the AP Stylebook: "hike: {eople take hikes through the woods, but they increase prices." If AP writers and editors ignore the AP Stylebook, is there no hope?

Google for "Tom Swifties", too.

"Drawled" can also refer to RP pronunciations as well as Southern ones.

Your restriction on "noted" seems overliteral (surely "noted predates "foonoted"?) I use it (not infrequently) when I quote a blogger making a point, as "said" can seem misleading (suggesting oral communication) if I haven't already established that I'm quoting written material. For instance, last Sunday's column: "As John McIntyre noted at his editing blog, You Don’t Say, Webster’s Third unabridged dictionary was a scandal 50 years ago, “giving schoolteachers the fantods because it included ain’t” ...
("Noted" was also useful because "he said ... you don't say" is slightly distracting to my oversensitive ear; your mileage may vary.)

Can we add "smiled" and "laughed" to the list? I have no idea how someone laughs a sentence.

Just finished a book in which a well-known writer used: "Come here," she hissed.

Just think about that one for a minute.

Buttry, why do you have to be so damned reasonable all the time? Of course there are contexts in which some of those synonyms would be apt. And I'd like to think that writers would have enough judgment to discern those contexts and that editors would share that judgment. But experience suggests that the presumption of innocence isn't very effective in these cases.

Whenever a reporter used a $64 dollar word in place of "said," I frequently expostulated, "Don't do that."

In all seriousness, the use of synonyms for "said" historically goes back to a florid Victorian style of indirect discourse which has no place in news copy. I did, however, allow for "noted" in the sense of the speaker pausing to further clarify a remark, and "added" for the additional affirmation of his position. Everything else got changed. And yes, Franklin W. Dixon, that world-famous co-operative writing stable of an author, did have a penchant for unnecessary synonyms for "said."

The one that drives me up the wall is "indicated," as in "He indicated that he would like to meet tomorrow at 9:00 a.m." What, did he convey the message with a wink and a nod?

I spend my days writing decisions based upon the written statements of others, some of which are medical opinions. "Said" doesn't work; "stated" sometimes works; "noted" is often right on the mark; and, much as I detest it, "opined" is frequently correct. I just get really bored being limited to a mere handful of verbs.

I am pro-judgment, John. I've seen too many writers straining for synonyms for "said" without using judgment. I get just as annoyed by editors who change precise language without using judgment. I think we agree that good judgment would be to use "said" unless you have a good reason to use a more precise verb. I just feared your use of "nearly all instances" would reinforce the editors who change without using judgment.

John, it's too bad you can't choose your own Captcha words here. Would be cool for commenters to have to spell out "exulted" or "declaimed" after commenting on this post.

Footnote to Toma---I went looking for a citation, because the whole line is even better:
"Studs [Terkel]'s reading of "The Young Immigrants" by Ring Lardner is the funniest story I have ever heard. ("Are we lorst, dad?" I inquired tenderly. "Shuddup," he explained.) "

Even worse, we have a writer who seems to just use said/added/offered/explained, in that order, on a rotating basis. I guess he's trying to add variety in a very organized way.

Agreed, there is no need for a big word where a little one would do, although precision is important, and "said" isn't always accurate. That said, however, I was taught a very long time at school that it was A Good Thing to ring the changes rather than use the same word repeatedly. Not sure that it's wise teaching, but surely many others were taught the same way. So it's not entirely their fault.

"Ejaculated" is indeed a Hardy Boys favorite, particularly when followed by another Dixonism, "...suiting the action to the word."

I jusr read, on one of the other Sun blogs, about the repair/replacement work on the half-century-old Charles Street bridge and I lost focus while pondering what different meaning I was expected to take away from, say, a fifty-year-old bridge.

"Half an X" seems bigger; "half a dollar" over "fifty cents", "half an hour" over "thirty minutes", "half a thousand years" (from Larry Niven's novel Ringworld and several of his other works, though Google Ngrams shows it peaking around 1922) over "five centuries" over "five hundred years".

(Insert gray/grey distinction discussion here.)

"This is too silly for words," she simpered.

Noted is the preferred word when someone says something that everyone knows to be true. "The sun rises in the east," he noted. It seems dumb to write, "The sun rises in the east," he said. Generally, writers use noted to hint that what's said is true and claimed to hint that what's said is questionable. If I read, "He noted that the Democratic budget plan is better," I know that the writer thinks the Democratic plan is better.

I am a hater of "elegant variation," and said is clearly the nearest occasion of sin for lots of writers.

But I don't like to use "said" for private email communication between the reporter and a source; seems like we're taking credit for a live interview when we didn't get one. In the first reference, "Quote tk," Mr. Smith wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "Quote continued tk."

But is "wrote" the correct verb subsequently? I often waffle on this.

I would judge that your ear is correct, Mr McGeveran, and also that once "wrote" has been wrote, "wrote" it should remain thereafter.

Someone needs to tell the teacher that there are no synonyms (go ahead, show me a 1,000 exceptions, but read this first). Each word has its own meaning, its own connotative shadow, and thus has no precise grammatical doppelganger. As you write, there can be more accurate words to use in an attribution, but they each have a specific usage. It's good to teach the students to break up the "said" monotony, but use the break to make the writing more accurate and descriptive.

Gary, apparently Roget agreed with you. He reportedly called his book a thesaurus instead of a list of synonyms (the conventional name) for the same reason.

Cheers,
Tim

Ditto to "indicated." But I do love "averred," at least in jest.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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