They will wrest “dull words” from my cold dead hands.

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is a movement — or, as I prefer, “epidemic,” of English teachers telling people to ditch “boring” words like “said.” “Said,” handouts proclaim, “is Dead.”

This is nonsense. Keep “said” where it belongs. Lose everything else.

Every other possible word you could use in place of “said” is, loosely speaking, terrible. “Barking” is for seals and carnival promoters. “Yelps” should be used sparingly, as should “gasps.” No one who is not a character in a Bronte novel should be allowed to “ejaculate,” ever. (If you snickered at that last sentence, that only strengthens my case.)

“Expounding” is what you do when you save a dog from being euthanized. “Wailing” is for Captain Ahab. “Hollering,” back or otherwise, is all very well for Gwen Stefani (yes, all right, I’m dating myself here) but it should be kept to a minimum otherwise. “Implore” is the stories imps tell themselves. “Pronounce” include “I, Me, He, She and They.” “Bawled” is what Patrick Stewart is. “Assert” is what rude people on Reddit are always accusing those who disagree with their social positions of being. “Bellow” is a man named Saul. “Cry” is what arbitrary dictums like this make me wish to do.

Unless you are writing a Victorian melodrama, nobody should “shriek” or “beseech.” We “declared” once in 1776, and that should have been enough.

“He breathed” is one of the tell-tale signs that the writer of whatever you are reading is under 14. (If you are currently under 14 and trying to make something of yourself in the Supernatural fandom, or whatever fandom the tweens are into these days, that is the last thing you need hanging around your neck. The same goes for “whimpered,” “groaned,” “moaned,” “choked,” “panted” or any other verb that enjoys hanging out in bodice-rippers. If you wouldn’t want to imagine your parents doing it, don’t use it as a substitute for “said.”)

“Voiced” is no good. I have never seen anyone successfully voice anything that was not a concern. If it is used in any other situation, I am the one with the concern. The same goes for “articulate.” These are both words that you can use when you are paraphrasing what someone said — he voiced that concern, say, or she articulated her thoughts on the matter, but when they take the place of “said,” the substitution is noticeable. “Hi there,” he articulated. Who is he, a robot?

Most things that end in “ulate” are no good, come to think of it. The only time you should use “expostulate” is in the sentence, “When I asked my ex to pause before ending our relationship, my expostulate.”

As Gabriel Roth writes at Slate, you do not have to be Hemingway to want to eschew attenuated asseverations. You merely have to have a respectful working relationship with the English language. Dull words are what make many bright sentences shine. They do not call attention to themselves. As Will Rogers said, “We cannot all be heroes, because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” This goes for words, as well. Not every word can be the star of the sentence.

With these awful colorful words, you cannot hear what a person is saying over how he or she is being forced to say it.

“Said” replacements would not be so bad if they would only avoid drawing attention to themselves. But they cannot help it, poor things. They are like understudies who keep shouting “HI, MOM!” at inopportune times. You want to forget they are there, but they will not let you.

So please, I entreat you, send your colorful words away. Release them back to three-volume Victorian novels, where they will have good and stable homes. Save them for when you know what you are doing. They are fine to add spice to your writing, every now and again, but if you bedizen every sentence with one, you wind up with a thick awful melodramatic stew, heaving and whooping and scolding and vowing every which way.

In fact, I will go further. If anyone reading this has the ill fortune of both being in middle school and having a teacher who wants you to replace “said” and other noble workhorse words with something flashier and more gimmicky, tell your teacher to send me a note. I handle words for a living, and I will attempt to remonstrate with him or her. Or harangue, as the case may be.

Or maybe we will just say things to each other.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day, for The Washington Post.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.