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Mette's Famous Said Rant

My 6th grader came home last night telling me that her math teacher had announced she was tired of everyone giving the same answer to all the time tables. It made correcting them so boring. So she gave this new rule 7 x 7 could equal 49, but only twice on the same paper. The other times, there would have to be another answer given.

Not really. But why is it that telling my sixth grader that the word "said" could be used only twice in a paper or she would be docked points is any more reasonable? She was to use one of the following words instead:

acknowledged, addressed, admitted, agreed, announced, answered, articulated, asked, asserted, averred, babbled, bantered, begged, claimed, communicated, cited, commented, claimed, commented, confided, contradicted, conveyed, cried, chuckled, debated, decided, declared, described, discussed, divulged, elaborated, emphasized, estimated, exclaimed, expressed, faltered, fumed, giggled, grunted, held, hurried, implied, instructed, imagined, laughed, lectured, lied, mentioned, mimicked, moaned, mumbled, muttered, nagged, noted, notified, objected, observed, ordered, pleaded, pointed out, prayed, predicted, proclaimed, promised, quibbled, questioned, quizzed, quoted, ranted, reassured, refuted, repeated, replied, retorted, returned, revealed, roared, ruled, scoffed, scolded, screamed, shouted, shrieked, snapped, sobbed, stammered, stated, stormed, suggested, taunted, thought, threatened, told, urged, uttered, vented, vocalized, voiced, vowed, wailed, warned, wondered.

I say this is ridiculous! Shall we start telling people that using the letter "e" too much is not allowed. Or that the words "a," "and," and "the" must now be rationed out? "Said" is a word that is used for a reason, and it is not simply interchangeable with a hundred other words. In fact, English has all these other words precisely because they do not mean the same thing as "said." They mean something slightly different. To use them in the place of "said" can often result in a sentence that makes no sense or looks idiotic.

For example:

"Hello," I said.

Boring? Well, "Hello," I contradicted isn't as boring. But it's pretty silly. So is: "Hello," I vocalized. And on and on.

The teacher's reason for asking the students to use words other than "said" is that she says she gets tired of reading papers with so many "boring" words. I suggest that it is not the words themselves that are boring, nor will "more interesting" words change the boringness of the papers in question in the slightest.

I would also argue that this is teaching children the worst possible writing habits. The kind of habits that critique groups and editors will spend years growing them out of. Believe me, I know. I was there.

As a professional writer, I have learned that using anything other than "said" as an word of attribution is a nearly universally recognized trait of bad writing. "Ask" is acceptable when there is a question. Whisper or shout if it is appropriate to the occasion. But even the words "suggested," and "promised" were crossed out repeatedly by my copy editor in my latest novel revision. Anytime you can use the word "said," it should be used.

My husband got out one of the books I am currently reading aloud to my oldest 3, Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. A wonderful book. He scanned through three pages and this was what he found:

8 uses of the word "said."

3 uses of the word "asked."

One use of "corrected."

One use of "shouted."

And 3 uses of action tags.

He picked up another book, Tithe by Holly Black. Looked through two more pages. The results:

8 uses of "said"

4 uses of quotations marks without attribution, in cases where it would be understood who was speaking.

3 uses of action tags.

1 use of "asked."

I suspect that any teacher who actually picked up a book on their shelf and counted the use of "said" would find the same or similar results. "Said" is used overwhelmingly in the best of writing. And it does not make writing boring. On the contrary, it is what is said that makes a book interesting or not interesting, not how it is attributed. Although those kinds of words can make your writing very humorous, usually it is unintentional.

Probably these teachers have been forced to teach certain rules of writing because of some statewide writing initiative and will in fact be graded on how well their students are taught to follow these rules. But whoever made up those initiatives--did you ask a single professional writer what rules of writing they use? Did you look at a Newbery book as an example of good writing and go from there? I doubt it.

Good writing is invisible. That is why "said" is the perfect word. The eyes scan right over it, hardly noticing it is there. Or nothing at all--even better, if it works. If you are writing a poem, perhaps your words are what makes it interesting. But if you are writing prose, your words should do nothing more than allow the reader to experience the story you are telling, dialogue and all, themselves. They should feel as though they have slipped into it, as though they are there. Words like "exclaimed," "expostulated," "ejaculated," "prognosticated," "enunciated," and on and on, only draw your reader out of your text and remind them that it is not real, that you as the author want to prove to them how educated you are.

Please, people. When 7 x 7 is always 49, that is always the right answer. Whether it is boring to correct papers that always use the right answer is not an excuse to force students to use the wrong answer. It is no different in writing than in math.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.