Don’t sputter. Just say

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 plebian 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 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:

    ‘No,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing to say.’
    ‘Good-night,’ he said. ‘I cannot take you to your hotel?’
    ‘No, thank you.’
    ‘It was the only thing to do,’ he said. ‘The operation proved–‘
    ‘I do not want to talk about it,’ I said.

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

    ‘No,’ I seethed. ‘There’s nothing to say.’
    ‘Good-night,’ he wished me. ‘I cannot take you to your hotel?’
    ‘No, thank you.’
    ‘It was the only thing to do,’ he justified. ‘The operation proved–‘
    ‘I do not want to talk about it,’ I spat out.

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:

    Day Tripper heard the deep sliding whistle of the other shells first. ‘That ain’ no outgoin’,’ he said.
    ‘That ain’t outgoing,’ Mayhew said.
    ‘Now what I jus’ say?’ Day Tripper yelled, and we reached the trench as a shell landed … A lot of them were coming in, some mortars too, but we didn’t count them.
    ‘Sure was some nice mornin’,’ Day Tripper said. ‘Oh man, why they can’ jus’ leave us alone one time?’
    ‘Cause they ain’t gettin’ paid to leave us alone,’ Mayhew said, laughing. ‘Slides, they do it cause they know how it fucks you all up.’

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.




  1. Suman · August 27, 2009

    Well ‘said’ Chindu! Funny and sadly true. I have noticed similar tendency to use the most complicated words to ‘express’ what we want actually wanted to ‘convey’-not just in retelling direct quotes. And in the midst of all that, the true meaning is often lost. No wonder, we are all increasingly recluse in real life but active on the virtual space- less communication and even lesser chance of misinterpretations.

  2. Chindu Sreedharan
    Chindu Sreedharan · August 28, 2009

    Good to see you here. And I believe you just might be talking about academish as well there?! :-)

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