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Don’t splutter. Just say
On the beauty of a simple speech tag
Chindu Sreedharan comment 0 Comments access_time 3 min read

There is this four-letter word in English that many of us are severely allergic to — and no, this one doesn’t start with ‘F’.

‘Said’ is the word in question. The one we brush aside when we attribute direct speech.

It is too simple for us, too common. Where is plain plebeian Said when compared to alleged, argued, articulated, averred, claimed, disclosed, declared, held, offered, opined, stated, and pronounced? And the ‘action-packed’ laughed, grimaced, cried, sputtered, spat, and spewed?

“Said,” a reporter claimed, “is okay when you are attributing for the first time. But you can’t keep saying ‘said, said’ all the time. The copy will become repetitive and monotonous.”

“Said,” disclosed another, “is too bland. It doesn’t say anything.”

Precisely. Said is neutral. And that is its beauty.

A long time ago I remember reading a clipping my then editor-in-chief — an elephantine gentleman with an elephantine memory for the published word — passed around. It, well, said Said is a writer’s best friend, and when a reporter uses anything other than Said, he is poking his nose in, colouring the quote.

This is not always acceptable, certainly not in newswriting — objectivity and all the rest, you know. More than that, if it is a passable quote, the words should convey whether the speaker is disclosing/alleging/stating/laughing/sputtering, whatever.

At times we also end up conveying the wrong meaning when we opt for frilly attributory words. Take, for instance, the quotes above.

‘…a writer claimed’ goes the first, conveying our disbelief at what the writer has to say. We are thus telling the reader, hey, mate, this is what he says, but it ain’t true.

The ‘disclosed’ in the second attribution, for its part, implies a revelation to the reporter. And since it is a revelation, it must be true, is the impression.

An editor at the Wall Street Journal had an effective way to handle such writers. Whenever he spotted funny stuff, he would call the writer in question to his desk. “Laugh me this sentence,” he would say. Or “Sputter me this sentence.”

Now that doesn’t mean you don’t communicate the speaker laughed when he said his say. Go ahead. Try attributing it differently, though: “…he said, laughing”.

The reasoning Said should be used ‘sparingly’ to avoid repetition doesn’t wash either. Because, Said is one of those invisible words. So non-intrusive, so low-key that we skim across it. Here’s a bit of Hemingway — I think we can take him for an authority on good writing — to illustrate my point:

Five exchanges. Four Saids. Now let’s try some fancy attribution and see where that takes us:

What do you say?

Now please don’t tell me Said works only for dialogue, in fiction. It works perfectly fine for captured conversation in non-fiction as well. Here’s Michael Herr, one of the best war correspondents ever, exposing the psyche of a bunch of scared American youngsters in Vietnam trapped in a war they want no part of. From Khesanh, a piece he wrote for the Esquire in 1968:

Stats? Let’s dip into the work of two Pulitzer-winning journalists.

Michael Vitez, in the first chapter of his series Seeking a Good Death (1997, Explanatory Journalism), quotes some 1,200 words of speech, across 46 exchanges. He uses 2 ‘tells’, 3 ‘askeds’, 1 ‘agreed’, 1 ‘insisted’, 1 ‘flinched’, 1 ‘concluded’, ‘1 whispered’, 1 ‘continued’ — and 36 Saids.

In his 3,828-word piece titled Final Salute (2006, Feature Writing), Jim Sheeler uses 27 complete direct quotations (about 700 words of it) to tell the story of a Marine major who helps the families of colleagues killed in Iraq to cope with grief. All 27 times he uses Said.

I think that says it all.

This post was first published on September 16, 2007, on the blog Accidental Academic.

Attribution English Journalism Speech tag Writing