Tuesday, 10 August 2010

He Said, She Said...



If you've ever studied creative writing at any level, you've probably been told to avoid using words like { yelled / exclaimed / whispered / muttered / spat / hissed }, and stick to the simple "said". It's such uncontraversial advice that I even remember hearing it in high school - yet it was only fairly recently that I really understood why this works.

After all, in general, repetition is bad. As writers we usually try to avoid repeating ourselves, unless we're aiming for a particular rhetorical effect.

So why is it okay (preferable, indeed) to repeat the word "said"?

In computational linguistics, there's a concept called stop words. For a given language, there's a set of words which are generally so common across all documents in that language that they don't contribute much meaning in their own right. For most kinds of analysis, these words are simply ignored: it's as if they're not there.

In a list of words from the British National Corpus, arranged by frequency, forms of the verb "to say" come in at 34th place. That's right up there with "the" (1st), "and" (4th), "but" (23rd) and "or" (29th). Words that are slightly less common include "will" (35th), "who" (47th), and "some" (56th). With such an oft-used word, it's not surprising that the reader's eye will glide over it with barely a second thought.

It's worth noting that "ask" comes in at 154th, which is still pretty common - between "might" (151st) and "however" (158th). So the average reader isn't going to hear alarm bells in their head over an occasional "she asked," either (but on the raw numbers, it's about 1/5th the frequency of "said").

Here are the positions for a few other dialogue tags:

34say
154ask
1723shout
2613whisper
3244cry
5111yell
5283exclaim

Keep in mind that the higher the number, the more uncommon the word - and the more it will stand out if you use it. Personally, I don't hold with the idea that these are "bad" words which should be avoided at all costs, but I would caution you to know what you're doing. Your readers will notice.

Frequencies from Kilgarriff's lemmatized lists.

27 comments:

Kel said...

I had no idea! I studied creative writing at University and no one ever told me to avoid those words in my writing. Guess I better go reedit my book! :)

Tabor said...

I took a creative writing course when I was a freshman (long before you were born and with no experiences in my kit to add to my writing. I wish today I was close enough to take another writing course, but I am afraid that here in the country it would be pretty parochial. Thanks for this little bit of news and as you said rules are not ALWAYS to be followed.

Firaphoenix said...

Thanks for the advice :D

LindyLouMac said...

Oh boy Rachel this why I am not a writer, way too complicated.

Stephanie V said...

You're right...as an amateur creative writer - aka blogger - I always worry about word repetition. Good info, thanks.

Livia said...

"Excellent post," enthused Livia. "It certainly makes intuitive sense. I've heard of this before, but thanks for quantifying it. Very interesting."

Andy Cater said...

"Throw the rule out" he ejaculated

Jeanne said...

I don't remember ever noticing dialog tags until I started taking writing classes and learned it was a no-no. Now they leap off the page at me.

It was interesting to learn WHY they're a no-no.

Bagman and Butler said...

"I guess that 'says' it all," Butler extrapolated.

Mama Hen said...

What a great and interesting post Rachel! I like spicing up my writing with a fun word like "sputtered" and "hissed". But I bet the word said is really used a lot! Have a great night!

Mama Hen

the queen said...

Never heard the rule. What I remember was my creative writing teacher calling out a student for writing about a couple who had had an abortion. The boy asked, "How are you?" The girl said, "I'm fine."

Did she hiss, "I'm fine?" Sigh, "I'm fine?" On and on. Since then I've heard the rule,but I dont know.

Velva said...

I learned something new today!

btw, your beautiful cupcake photo will post for Wordless Wednesday at 6:00 a.m. EST.

Writing Without Periods! said...

As a writer this is very interesting to me. Thanks.
Mary

yogurt said...

Interesting recent trend in contemporary fiction, no "she said" only italicized. Guess they are solving the dilemma by skipping it altogether.

Kasia said...

That's very interesting :) And actually quite obvious - if you think of how many things you say daily in relation to how many times you ask, shout, cry, etc. I think I'm one of those writers who is not so keen on style rules, but on making my story credible. And also there's a few equivalents of say in my first language! I also agree with one of the commenters - in a dialogue you can sometimes skip the tags altogether if it's obvious who's making a statement.

Saretta said...

That's fascinating! Never thought about it. I love language info!
Visiting you from SITS and glad I did! :-)

ScoMan said...

I think if this analysis was done solely on my blog, "Anyway" would be number 1 and "Awesome" would be number 2.

I was always told to avoid using "said". My English teachers sucked.

Jim Murdoch said...

Makes sense to me. I even avoid 'said' as much as I can. As long as your cross-talk doesn't go on for too long - or involve more than two people - you can get away with it as long as you touch base every now and then to remind your readers who's talking.

Ian said...

That's interesting, because I once had a teacher who forbade us from using the words "said", "got" and "went" in our writing (leading to endless jokes about how "Bob said he went to the shops and got some milk"). Granted this was largely to develop our vocabularies but it's still something I (mostly) hold to out of pure, bashed-in habit!

Debbie said...

I can see that. I am one of those readers that really skims those parts in between the actual dialog. Not a great idea, but I do it anyway.

smilla4blogs said...

"Good for you! Your informative post has inspired a lively discussion" I said.

Deirdre said...

Your posts are always so interesting.

Lilian Nattel said...

That is fascinating and makes total sense to me. (Now I'm wondering where total ranks in usage!)

Sandra said...

As a university graduate with a degree in creative writing, I find it best to go with your voice and not to worry too much about the rest. And when in doubt, the f-bomb is a safe alternative to repetition!
In all seriousness, this is good info. Much appreciated by bloggers who have to read other bloggers who say the same words over and over and over again.... :)

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Bells said...

oh yes, the good old said issue. I like to use it more than anything else.

But, one of my most pet hates with dialogue in writing is the over use of adverbs.

Hello, she said happily.
How are you, he replied cautiously.
Fine, she said brightly.

And so on. It's one of the things that will make me close a book almost at once!

lackofgravitas said...

Also prevents the jarring you get when the voice inside your head is obviously not quite what the author heard. I've been reading Harry Potter out loud to my daughter for, ooh, months now (a chapter a night, just finished ch. 17 of book 4) and keep falling foul of this one. I can usually read ahead enough to get it right, but there have been occasions when I've read the dialogue quite loudly, then finished with 'he whispered'. This evening I growled a line of Professor Moody's, only to follow up with 'he said, with the merest hint of a growl'.

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