Sunday, February 18, 2007


I say!

Oh, how many ways there are to say “say”. I'm not talking about “he goes”, or “she went”, or “I'm like”, or “he was all”. I'm talking about the way we say it more formally... and how we abuse it. If you know my writings about language, you'll know that it's the abuse I want to discuss here.

It'd be boring if we always wrote “he said”, and to avoid that we often pull out our list of alternatives, most of which add something about the manner in which he said whatever it was. We use things like “he opined”, “he stated”, “he averred”, “he replied”, and so on. That's great when we use them appropriately, and for those examples we usually do, he pontificated. But those are usually used in narratives, as in literature.

I deal every day with writing that no one would consider to be literature, nor often, I dare say, even literate. Those writing it are well-educated people, many with PhDs, many with very large paychecks. Respected scientists, giants of industry. That's right: the stuff is written by businessmen and businesswomen.

I alluded to one of the abuses above, by italicizing the word “discuss”, when I'm not really having a discussion. Of course, you folks can leave comments and we can have a discussion here, so it's not entirely inappropriate to use that word. But I often see it used when the “discussion” is clearly one-way. “In his 2007 kick-off presentation, the CEO discussed the corporate strategy for the coming year.” There is some support for the one-way usage, but American Heritage, my favourite dictionary, has this to say in a usage note:

“Discuss” involves close examination of a subject with interchange of opinions.

I italicized another example in the previous paragraph: “alluded to”. I actually used it correctly up there, but it's often misused, and almost always, as there, in the past tense:

We will increase our sales force in the northeast region by 12%.


As I alluded to before, our sales force will go up by 12% in the northeast.

He didn't “allude to” anything — he said it outright. An allusion is an indirect reference. “When she talked about ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ she alluded to Voltaire's ‘Candide’.” Donot use it to mean “she said”. There's no qualification here... just don't.

“Indicate” and “signal” also have connotations of indirect — or non-verbal — communication. One might indicate a direction by pointing, or signal assent by nodding. If “he indicated where we should go,” one may assume that he did not give detailed directions.

A “dialogue” is most definitely not a one-way communication. Its use as a verb bothers me in any case (according to a usage note in American Heritage, “Although Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Carlyle used it, this usage today is widely regarded as jargon or bureaucratese.”), but especially so when it's used to mean “say”. I hear that very infrequently, but you know the way these things have of spreading.

1 comment:

Susan Kuchinskas said...

Indicated is my most-hated synonym for "said." Public servants seem to use it a lot, perhaps thinking it sounds more official.

IMHO -- and in the opinion of numerous creative writing teachers -- said is usually the best choice. That's because said is more of a place-marking word, rather than part of the actual content. It helps us keep track of ... well, who's saying what.

It's analogous to words like but, then, and. It's not a word we need to notice, it just helps us get to the good stuff. The mind sort of skates over it.

Whereas, when the writer tries to get fancy with "he averred" or something, it actually distracts from the important stuff.

If you read old pop novels from the 1940s and 50s, the writers used all sorts of synonyms for said, and the writing feels really clunky.