He Said, She Said

Until recently, the best way to start a flamewar among writers was to ask, perhaps disingenuously, “What’s so wrong with passive voice?” Now, it seems, we’ve moved on to “said” vs. all the other wonderful verbs one might use to add a dash of spice to ordinary dialogue.

While “he said” and “she said” can, indeed, be monotonous, some of the alternatives lead to ludicrous acts of linguistic contortion. It can be draining for the writer and reader alike. Imagine a little meet and greet session at a writer’s conference in the ballroom of a swanky, five-star hotel. The panel in the previous session has admonished, “Said is dead. If not, we ought to kill it. It’s dull and lifeless. Your reader must be told exactly how words were uttered – they cannot possibly be expected to figure it out from the context in which they’re spoken! Pepper your writing with pithy purple prose!”

“Balderdash,” muttered the curmudgeonly old technical writer. “Nonsense!” he asserted. Several others murmured their assent.

“Bad advice,” agreed Mr. Sinjin Smythe.

“I really don’t understand the problem,” Nora Lofthouse sighed.

Try that – try sighing a whole sentence. If you can do it, I want to see it on YouTube. 

“Isn’t repetition boring? Isn’t redundancy dull?” added Ms. Lofthouse, quite unnecessarily driving her point home to no one in particular. “I think it’s marvelous to use more colorful varietals from the unabridged dictionary, don’t you?” she enquired, again, of no one in particular. She just liked to hear the musical lilt of her own voice.

“Yes, but don’t you think–” began the unknown author, biting back the words, noticing that all eyes were upon him. Glued on him, intently. He frantically began picking the eyeballs off his shirt, losing his train of thought as it went thundering through the ballroom to crash against the hotel lobby desk outside.

“Dear God, please let these writers meet somewhere else, next year,” prayed the front desk attendant, picking bits of flaming coal from her hair. “Anywhere else would do. I’m so sorry,” she apologized to the startled guest who had been trying to check in when his Pomeranian was caught up in the locomotive’s cow-catcher.

Meanwhile, the unknown author’s unspoken words bit back. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, hoping that one might properly “exclaim” an “ouch.” Hearing no objection, he was tempted to declare an epithet. He looked down and realized that he had missed several eyes, and plucked them from his shirt with distaste. “W-w-w-w-what do I do with these?” he stammered. “They’re disgusting! Eww! Gross!” he spluttered.

“You plucked them,” accused Mr. Sinjin Smythe.

“True,” he acknowledged. “But…surely you don’t expect me to hold them all night!” he protested.

“You figure it out,” admonished another, clearly wanting nothing to do with the eyeballs the poor unknown author was holding in his hand.

A harried and world-weary waiter came by, just then, and rescued the unknown author with a silver tray covered in thick layers of newsprint. “Just drop them here, Sir. Like yesterday’s kippers. But be quick about it,” he begged. “They like to follow people around the room. Occasionally,” he confessed quietly, “they even bore into their very souls.”

The unknown author shuddered and wiped tear fluid from his fingers. “Christ,” whined the unknown author, “how many words were in that list, again?” He struggled to remember, and hoped that this party would come to an end soon.

Just then, a meek little author whispered, “Sir?”

“Yes?” he giggled, growing hysterical at the thought of those eyes.

“You really oughtn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” she scolded.

“Easy for you to say,” he raved. “You didn’t just have pluck fifty-seven eyeballs from your shirt, now, did you?” He recalled and recounted the tale to anyone who would listen, then calmed down a little and explained, “It was quite disturbing.” He grew silent, then reflecting upon the horror of it, moaned, “Really quite disturbing…”

“Oh, stop the caterwauling!” shrieked the octagenarian author of eighty nine midlist murder mysteries. “Be a man. Be a writer. Grow a set,” she ordered. “You sound like a little pansy-ass over there, all ‘ewww, eyeballs!'” she mocked him cruelly. “What do you write, romance novels? Hallmark poetry?” she grumbled.

“I wasn’t going to mention this,” said the meek little author who still stood at the unknown author’s elbow, “But,” she mentioned it anyway: “Your participle’s dangling.”

“Oh, no one’s participle dangles like Harry’s,” gushed the lush in the corner.

“Well, now, I’d challenge that,” boasted an equally inebriated author, quickly checking his fly to be sure the woman in the shadows was referring to his writing and not to his…well.

The lush, a luscious redhead in a skin tight orange leather mini-dress, pushed herself off the wall in one slow and sultry movement, and introduced Harry, so that he no longer possessed his only claim to fame; that was to say, he could no longer call himself an unknown author.

“Hello, Nan,” he seethed.

“Oh, now, you needn’t look so put out, Harry,” Nan taunted. “Aren’t you happy to see your favorite agent?” she pouted.

“I’d be happier if she weren’t drinking the bar dry,” Harry replied. “I’d be happier if she’d found any of my thirty-two manuscripts a good home,” he noted. And, he remembered, almost as an afterthought, “I’d be happier if she weren’t sleeping with my ex-wife!”

You could hear a pin drop as Harry’s last admonishment dangled precariously over the cliff-edge of poor taste.

“Well, fortunately for me, she wouldn’t be,” quipped Nan. The awkward moment passed, and the clinking of glasses and the smattering of small-talk filled in as background noise. “Really, that was quite gauche, Harry,” sneered Nan. “And in front of all these colleagues of ours,” she berated him under her breath.

Turning sharply, Nan ground a dime into the ballroom floor with her diamond-studded stiletto heel, imagining, as she did so, that it was Harry’s left ear.

“Quite gauche,” quoted the meek little writer, who was not so meek, after all. She, too, abandoned Harry, finally.

In the end, Harry declared, “Writing is for the birds. I do believe I should have been an accountant!” He drained his drink and cried out, “Good bye, cruel world!” He slammed out the ballroom doors, hopped aboard the locomotive that still chugged and bellowed black smoke in the lobby, and vanished into the Valhalla of fevered imagination.

By the time the evening was over, the panelists all agreed on one thing. There was a time and a place for a homely little “said,” and so, utterly exhausted and emotionally drained, they bid each other “Good night.”



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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17 thoughts on “He Said, She Said”

  1. Love it. I do believe there’s something in the middle. I occasionally use other verbs when they make the point better than said can.

    1. Yes, there’s definitely something in the middle – and I so agree with what you wrote when you shared this: “If it’s one thing I can’t stand is someone telling me I can’t do something.” I have an instant, irrepressible urge to prove them wrong. I may eventually admit it if they’re right, but a suggestion works better and guarantees I won’t kill myself being contrary. 😉
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      1. Never and Always are two words that should be used carefully. I contend it comes down to a writer’s style and voice. What I find even more distracting than using a different verb than said is using an adverb to describe the the attribution, she said emphatically. That one really puts me on edge.

      2. Oh, yes – that’s often worse (because it’s easier for amateur writers than looking in a thesaurus for synonyms for “said”).

        I tend to naturally avoid the adverbs, preferring to describe the action that accompanies the words (it helps to paint a visual picture in the reader’s mind, unlike “emphatically”); for example:

        “You and your adverbs,” said the retired grammar teacher. She slammed a stack of style books on the table in front of Reginald. Tapping one bony finger atop Warriner’s, she said, “I suggest you review these before submitting that pathetic manuscript to a real publisher.” She snatched up her cane, paused for a moment – as if considering whether to rap Reginald smartly across the knuckles with it – and left the room with all the dignity of the Queen of England, having decided that petty violence would be vulgar.
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    1. Miss Marfle shooed the ejaculating penman from the drawing room as several of the ladies began fanning themselves in dismay. “They don’t write like that in my drawing room,” she hissed, simultaneously rolling her eyes. “Oh, damn,” she spluttered. “George, be a dear and grab those for me, will you? I can’t see a thing without them. And you know, last time that happened, the dog almost ate one.”
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  2. I LOVED this post! I’m going to save it for inspiration. Not that I’m a writer, but when I share a story, I want to gag when I use “said..” such an easy word to abuse when you are just a blogger.
    Aleta recently posted…Temper TantrumsMy Profile

    1. Just remember, there’s a happy middle ground between monotony and confusing. You can overdo either one. One of my favorite things is to omit the dialogue tags entirely, if it’s clear from the context who is speaking and how they’re feeling. Readers don’t have to be spoon fed. Adverbs can be even worse, giving stage direction at every turn isn’t needed, even in a screenplay. Imagine how a professional actor would feel about, “NO!” he said, emphatically. If it’s clear already, just keep it simple. “No!” on its own ought to be emphatic enough.
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  3. I’m torn between averring and ejaculating my pleasure in reading your post, Holly. Yes, I almost fanned myself in excitement: your post reads like fiction. Very entertaining.

    Bob Sanchez comment made me chuckle too by the way. (Easy to tell, right?)

    Thankful there’s such a thing as the middle ground and that you took it.

    1. “Did I, Jan?” inquired the inquisitive blogger, inquisitively. “I thought I went overboard.” Her expression was one of incredulous bemusement.

      Just then, Jan tossed Holly a package of Lifesavers. “Keep these handy. For when you go overboard.”

      “Mmmm, cherry!” Holly exclaimed, appreciatively.
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  4. So, what should be the priority then? Active or Passive, does it matter in a technical blog too? I remember in my school days, our science teacher used to say that examiner should be able to understand the explanation for science and the English part can be neglected if its fine but not correct or perfect. Don’t I have the exclusion here then?

    PS: Though the medium was English but still English is not our primary language and I wonder why I read all the subjects in English then?
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  5. What’s wrong with Hallmark poetries? I dreamed of writing for Hallmark when I was young! hahaha… but it made me laugh. And I’m an accountant! Was this post waiting for me all along?

    Gushed, said, uttered, muttered, sighed, butted in, whatever… I’ve used them all. Sometimes, however, I was not really sure if I used them correctly to express the emotions I wanted to express.

    I even read somewhere, “Always use said” Wow! Where’s the fun in that?!
    Roy recently posted…I used to be a blogger.My Profile

    1. “Oh, dear,” cringed the blogger, facepalming. She had only just realized the impossibility of cringing words, yet cringe them she did. It sounded something like aluminum foil being balled up and crushed against a soda can. Perhaps, she thought to herself, you inspired the post on a subliminal level?

      “I’m so sorry, Eeyore! I do hope you understood that it was all in fun!” Besides, none of us know “The Rest of the Story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. Perhaps the man became an accountant, wrote feverishly into the night (now having the luxury of not worrying where his next meal was coming from or how he might afford to write at night with anything but candles rendered from his own fat) and became a bestselling, internationally acclaimed author!
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