Kevin Andrew Murphy August 11th, 2006
In 1947, J.I. Rodale, arcane master of the thesaurus and rival of Roget, conspired with an enigmaticÂ woman known only as Mabel Mulock, former head of the Allentown High School English Department, to author a book that has passed into legend,Â rarely spoken of by authors and then solelyÂ in hushed whispers or derisive sneers.Â Rather like the Necronomicon, but more perilous and less accessible.
You may call me mad, but I’ve just located and ordered a copy of this blasphemous tome, the 1949 revised and corrected edition (and likely the last as well) of The “Said” Book.
To explain what a “Said” Bookism is, I will refer to the wisdom of The Turkey City Lexicon:
An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.
A fair enough definition, excepting the lack of author attribution, but regardless, this was something I thought should be brought up for discussion after Kit’s article regarding strong verbs and weak verbs.
The verb “said” is in some ways the weakest of weak verbs as it says nothing other than the fact that someone is speaking.Â However, that is also its virtue, since, invisible wallflower that it is, it’s the vanilla of the speaking verbs, going with everything except questions (which generally take “asked”) and exclamations (which of course get “exclaimed” unless some other verb is used).
It’s rather sad that “he ejaculated” can no longer be seriously used as a speaking verb, but that’s more the fault of Penthouse Forum than The “Said” Book.Â The other synonyms for “said,” however?Â They still have uses.
The main use of “said” and all the other speaking verbs is to designate who is speaking in a sentence and to keep readers from confusing one character’s dialogue with another’s.Â Of course, there are tricks around this.
One is to have characters speaking in entirely different modes and dialects.Â With the exception of very short questions and answers, the speaker will be obvious once the mode of speech has been established.
Another more simple and common trick is to simply attribute the speaker by interspersing the spoken lines with action.Â This has two virtues: the first is that it obviates the need for a speaking verb; the second, less obvious but equally necessary, is that it indicatesÂ a dramatic pause.
When people speak, they pause.Â Sometimes between sentences, sometimes in the middle of them.Â Wherever and whenever a character would pause for breath, that’s where you put the actions or the speaking verbs.Â The length of the pause is the same as the number of poetic “beats” of the sentence or fragment you’re inserting.
Good old “he said” and “she said” are iambs andÂ can beÂ dropped into sentences wherever you have a comma but you want the pause to be longer than a regular comma but shorter than the full stop of a period.Â The time it takes the reader’s eye to skip over the single iamb of “he said” or “she said” is all that’s needed to indicate a slight dramatic pause.Â If you require a longer pause, you do it by naming the character instead of using a pronoun (characters with polysyllabic names are very good for this purpose) or by tacking prepositional phrases or dependent clauses on after your speaking verb.Â Which, I should stress, doesn’t always have to be “said.”
The main time you should use another word than “said” is when the content of the quoted words is insufficient to inform the reader as to the manner in which they’re spoken.Â For example:
“You ate the baby.”
Is that simply “said”?Â Is it “asked”?Â Is it “exclaimed”?Â Is it both asked and exclaimed, thus requiring an interrobang?Â Or multiple interrobangs as well as a dramatic pose?
Â “You ate the baby!?!?!?”Â Pamela stood aghast.
You need a fancier speaking verb than “said” to inform the reader as to the way these words are spoken.Â There’s a vast world of difference between:
Â “You ate the baby,” she said.
“You ate the baby,” Pamela surmised.
“You ate the baby,” she stated baldly.
Whether or not to use anything that might have come from the dread “Said” BookÂ also depends a great deal on what style you’re going for.Â If you have diction of a certain level, “opined” and “retorted” may look right at home, though of course should be saved for those times when you need not just an indicator that someone is speaking, but that what they’re saying is in fact an opinion or a retort.Â If this already obvious from the content inside the quotation marks, then you shouldn’t use the odd words from The “Said” Book, not because they’re bad in and of themselves, but because they’re redundant, which is simply bad.