He said, she said or he admitted, she boasted?

What is wrong with the word said? Personally, I do have nothing against this very useful verb. But as it turns out, some teachers in the US are actively encouraging their students to not make use of it.

sc-9780545083034_lGabriel Roth describes this trend in his Lexicon Valley blog post “Teachers! Please Do Not Make Your Students Use Synonyms for Said,” I Blurted and states examples of teachers including said on lists of banned words or providing pupils with lists of alternatives to use instead. One of the leading proponents of this trend is Leilen Shelton, middle school teacher and author of the book Banishing Boring Words which displays a school boy thinking of words to use instead of said on its cover.  According to Roth, the problem lies in the application of this banning-said approach. While finding useful synonyms and enriching the pupils’ vocabulary are sensible objectives, Roth cautions against possible drawbacks:

First we’ll teach students to vary their vocabulary, and then to modulate their tone appropriately. The problem is that, on the evidence of all those slush piles, step two never takes place, and Shelton’s students go out into the world commanding and boasting and suggesting in the belief that they’re making their writing “more sophisticated” rather than less.

It does not come as a big surprise that the trend of substituting said also has been noticed in Great Britain. Toby Chasseaud reported on the Mind your language blog of The Guardian on newspapers replacing said with admit resulting in an expansion of meaning of admit in order to avoid repeating said or sounding too plain. He illustrated this by including numerous examples taken from various UK newspapers which shows not only its widespread use, but also its admitting downright ridiculousness. Chasseaud’s annoyance with replacing said is obvious as he said:

“A poll by LighterLife found nearly a quarter of UK women admit to secretly eating.”

Admitting to eating? Whatever next? Man admits to breathing? Woman admits to drinking water? I must admit I’ve had enough already, and most readers probably have too.

What do you think about avoiding said? Is it simply a matter of style?  Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and currently investigates attitudes towards British English Usage. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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7 Responses to He said, she said or he admitted, she boasted?

  1. Alon Lischinsky says:

    Funnily enough, creative writers have a long tradition of complaining of this practice, usually labelled saidbookism: http://lettergoblog.blogspot.co.uk/p/said-bookisms.html

  2. Paul Brians says:

    “Said” is innocuous and invisible unless you’re looking for it. Consciously choosing alternatives usually produces awkward prose. The last thing you usually want is to distract the reader when heading into a quotation.

  3. Paul Brians says:

    But as I said in this week’s “Common Errors in English Podcast,” it bothers me when a writer fails to follow “said” with a comma when it occurs just before a quotation. I think inexperienced writers confuse constructions
    like “he said he was going to cook dinner” with others like “he said, ‘I’m going to cook dinner.'”

  4. Stan Carey says:

    I wrote about this problem in February after reading a short story that parodies writers’ use of fancy synonyms for said for no good reason. As a copy-editor of academic prose I’ve also found that the aversion to said so common in novice fiction-writing is mirrored by the avoidance of wrote in academia.

  5. I have to admit to being unfased by admit. In the example you cite (or should that be give?), there is indeed an element of confession because women trying to lose weight do often sneak off and eat something in private that they wouldn’t in front of someone else. I also found many of the examples in the Guardian article perfectly acceptable; admited could be replaced by confessed in most of them. Now, this could be because I have read too many tabloid articles, but I suspect it is a normal way of using the word and the definition does need to be extended. As for the repeated use of said, I have found it a strain thinking up variations when quoting people, often using explained or according to. I shall now simply use said and feel no guilt.

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