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Elegant English: How to say ‘said’

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Do you write in English, even though it is not your native language? Could you use a few tips to help your English sound more natural? Or, is English your first language, but you feel your writing could do with a little extra polish?
Over the next ten weeks, I will be publishing a series of articles with ideas and suggestions to help writers working in the English language. I will look at some of the most common questions of style, which I encounter regularly in my work, and endeavour to give writers a better feel for what works well, so that their writing will have more impact. From repetition and use of tenses to regional variations and how to choose a catchy title, I will explore a different topic each week, so that your prose can sparkle as much as the ideas behind it.

This week’s article explores the different ways of saying ‘said:

How to say ‘said’

On the noticeboard above my desk, I have a list of words entitled ‘100 ways to say ‘said’’. I found it on the internet years ago (search for ‘100 ways to say ‘said” and you will find a whole range to choose from), and there are now well over a hundred since I have gradually added more as they have sprung to mind. In primary school, a very long time ago, I remember the teachers telling us that using ‘said’ too much when writing stories isn’t such a good thing, and that we should use other ‘reporting verbs’ to add variation and make our writing more interesting. I later discovered, though, that this is not always a good idea. Although repetition is usually best avoided (more to follow on that in a future article), the rules concerning the use of ‘said’ are not always quite so straightforward.

If I follow the teachers’ advice literally, I might end up with something like this:

“Oh, my goodness!” Sarah exclaimed.

“What’s the matter?” Pete asked.

“I’ve just remembered something,” Sarah stated.

“Well, tell me,” he urged.

“It’s just that I was talking to Sue the other day, and she mentioned she was going to the Nottingham office next week,” Sarah explained.

“Why should that matter?” Pete enquired.

“The thing is, she might see Geoff while she’s there, and then she’ll tell him all about what happened at the conference,” she commented.

“Oh, I see,” he acknowledged.

Not very exciting, is it? Although I have successfully avoided repeating ‘said’ each time, it feels as if I’ve been trying too hard to think of alternative verbs, and the result is not particularly pleasant to read. Even though I have managed to use a selection of different reporting verbs, I have used the same structure in each sentence, and this creates a similar, repetitive effect. The dialogue could be much improved by playing around with word patterns and introducing some variety. Using ‘said’ from time to time is not such a bad thing, as long as the rest of the writing is varied and compelling. Sometimes, it is not even necessary to use a reporting verb at all, if it is obvious who is speaking, and this may well improve the flow of the dialogue by removing superfluous interruptions.

So, here is a re-worked version of the same conversation:

“Oh, my goodness!” Sarah exclaimed.

Puzzled, Pete asked, “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve just remembered something.”

“Well, tell me,” he urged.

“It’s just that I was talking to Sue the other day, and she mentioned she was going to the Nottingham office next week.”

“Why should that matter?”

She reached out and touched him lightly on the shoulder before continuing her explanation.

“The thing is, she might see Geoff when she’s there, and then she’ll tell him all about what happened at the conference.”

“Oh, I see.” The sudden realisation brought his questioning to an abrupt end.

Can you feel a difference between the two versions? One is repetitive and dull, as all the sentences follow the same pattern, while the other version moves the word order around, uses fewer reporting verbs, and includes a couple of gestures or actions to add to the mood in a different way, to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. As the saying goes, ‘variety is the spice of life’, and it can spice up your writing, too!



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