Friday, 24 February 2012

Speech Tags - and Why Using Said is Always Right

Back in olden times when I was at school, one of our favourite sources of snigger moments were the pages in Lord Baden-Powell's autobiography where instead of using 'I said' he uses 'I ejaculated'. We may have been young, we may have been silly, but we knew for sure that using the word ejaculated to refer to speech was not a good idea. (And especially when boy scouts are involved.)

So imagine my surprise to come across a How To Write book in the library recently that seriously suggested 100 alternatives to 'said', including the e word. Most of them were simply wrong. Take...

'Woody Allen is so funny,' she laughed.

Okay, now say those words aloud, at the same time as laughing. Try it. Then try snorting your words, or giggling them. It can't be done. You can laugh, or snort, or giggle, and then speak, but not both actions at the same time.

I'm all for adding colour to writing, but in the case of speech the only variations that work are about volume:

'Be quiet,' he whispered, or 'Stop that now,' she shouted.

In general, plain old said is safest. It's a word that disappears, like 'and' or 'the'. If you feel you've got too many 'saids' floating around in your writing then either look for ways to hide them (eg within speeches), or cut them completely (substituting actions if necessary). 'But don't be tempted to use highly coloured alternatives for said,' she ejaculated. Unless you want us to snigger.


Anonymous said...

The exact same advice (to use "he/she said") is given by Stephen King in his book "On Writing".

Among the other tips he gives is to avoid the use of adverbs. He compares to them to dandelions growing in the pavement!


Anonymous said...

...or unless you're writing in the style of Jilly Cooper.
(An ex-Trowbridgeite)

Liz Harris said...

Absolutely true. It's advice that you can't hear often enough.

Liz X

Sarah Duncan said...

Anon - Stephen King's On Writing is a great book, one of the best. I love the metaphor!

Liz - Yes, yes and yes! she said.

Bree said...

I remember 'He ejaculated his saliva onto the pavement.' bringing forth some repressed laughter in class.

I don't use it lots, but I like separating it out:
Mary laughed and looked straight at the lamb. "You're not so little now, are you?"

Sarah Duncan said...

Yes, there are lots of ways of avoiding speech tags altogether. The saliva ejaculation is just gross.