A puzzling phenomenon exists in the world of teaching children to write. In the two decades since I first entered the classroom as a writing teacher, I’ve seen it countless times: a widespread bias against one highly useful, little word. Although this word has done nothing wrong, it has been maligned and even banned in some circles.

What kind of word could deserve this kind of treatment? It is, indeed, a four-letter word, but neither profane nor vulgar. If you used this word in speech, no one would think twice about it. It appears thousands of times in Scripture. Yet some students are not permitted to use it in writing. They are required to replace it with other words instead—words such as (to draw from one official list of replacement options given to students) lament, moralize, scowl, lash out, whimper, and yak.

The offending word, as you may or may not have guessed from its (pseudo-) synonyms, is said.

The prosecution says the word said is guilty of being dull, boring, and weak. In a society where meekness is often confused with weakness, I would argue that the word said is not weak but humble and unassuming. Quietly it does its job, refusing to draw too much attention to itself, letting more important words take the spotlight.

I wonder how some classic children’s authors would have fared, had they been prohibited from using the word said.

A Delightful Touch of Style

In his original Winnie-the-Pooh series, A.A. Milne writes in a style that defines personality—a style that often relies heavily on the word said.

In the second chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh has made up a new hum and is walking along humming to himself when he comes upon a large hole. Milne writes:

“Aha!” said Pooh. (Rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum.) “If I know anything about anything, that hole means Rabbit,” he said, “and Rabbit means Company,” he said, “and Company means Food and Listening-to-Me-Humming and such like. Rum-tum-tum-tiddle-um.

Later in the chapter, Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s front-door hole because he overindulged on Rabbit’s honey and condensed milk.

“It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much. I thought at the time,” said Rabbit, “only I didn’t like to say anything,” said Rabbit, “that one of us was eating too much,” said Rabbit, “and I knew it wasn’t me,” he said. “Well, well, I shall go and fetch Christopher Robin.”

The way Milne employs the word said in his storytelling is one of the most delightful elements of style in his books. He uses other words in dialogue, too, when they come naturally—asked, cried, murmured, explained—but he’s not afraid to use said liberally.

If Milne had been conditioned to avoid said, his books—and his characters—would have lost a great deal of personality. Here is what a rewrite of Rabbit’s part might have looked like, had Milne been forced to replace said with words from the synonym list:

“It all comes,” lamented Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much. I thought at the time,” moralized Rabbit, “only I didn’t like to say anything,” scowled Rabbit, that one of us was eating too much,” he lashed out, “and I knew it wasn’t me,” he reprimanded.

As the synonyms for said take the stage, Rabbit’s words fade to the background. Milne, however, found a friend in the undervalued little verb. He knew the worth of the common word, and he multiplied it.

The Gift of Simplicity

Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the childhood story of her husband, Almanzo, in Farmer Boy. In one chapter, young Almanzo decides to hitch a sled that he received for his birthday to two oxen, thinking the oxen would pull him and two other boys, Pierre and Louis, on the sled. Wilder writes:

“Now, Louis, you get on the sled,” Almanzo said.

“No, I’m the biggest!” Pierre said, pushing Louis back. “I get first ride.”

“You better not,” said Almanzo. “When the calves feel the heft, they’re liable to run away. Let Louis go first because he’s lighter.”

“No, I don’t want to,” Louis said.

“I guess you better,” Almanzo told him.

“No,” said Louis.

“Be you scared?” Almanzo asked.

“He’s scared,” Pierre sneered.

“Yes, he’s scared,” Almanzo said.

Louis said he was not either scared.

“You are, too, scared,” Almanzo and Pierre said. They said he was a fraidy-cat. They said he was a baby. Pierre told him to go back to his mamma. So finally Louis sat carefully on the sled.

Almanzo cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap!”

Wilder’s standard use of said in this passage allows the reader to focus on the dialogue without getting distracted by an overuse of synonyms. It also makes the few alternatives she uses feel fresh and meaningful. Because the author’s standard word during the dialogue is said, the words sneered and shouted gain strength when they appear.

On the other hand, if Wilder had never used the word said, the dialogue would have become convoluted. Here is the same passage, omitting said and replacing it with synonyms from the list:

“Now, Louis, you get on the sled,” Almanzo advised.

“No, I’m the biggest!” Pierre protested, pushing Louis back. “I get first ride.”

“You better not,” contradicted Almanzo. “When the calves feel the heft, they’re liable to run away. Let Louis go first because he’s lighter.”

“No, I don’t want to,” Louis debated.

“I guess you better,” Almanzo told him.

“No,” asserted Louis.

“Be you scared?” Almanzo asked.

“He’s scared,” Pierre sneered.

“Yes, he’s scared,” Almanzo accused.

Louis remarked he was not either scared.

“You are, too, scared,” Almanzo and Pierre taunted. They stated he was a fraidy-cat. They cackled that he was a baby. Pierre told him to go back to his mamma. So finally Louis sat carefully on the sled.

Almanzo cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap!”

Such a dialogue will tax the reader’s attention by emphasizing replacements for said at the expense of the characters’ conversation. When the reader’s brain has to process all of these unnecessary words, it becomes harder to extract the meaning of the dialogue. Using said and other common and natural dialogue words (asked, told, replied) gives the reader the gift of simplicity that frees the brain to focus on the more important part of the text.

The Freedom of Familiarity

If anyone gave C.S. Lewis the advice to omit said from his writing, he didn’t heed it. Nor did Tolkien. Both of these authors used the word said liberally in their books, from Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Lewis and Tolkien were hardly ignorant writers. They employed words with expert precision. In their books, the word said is not boring, dull, or weak. Rather, in the same way that the familiarity of the liturgy frees the mind to enter into prayer, the way these authors repeatedly use said frees the reader to enter into the words of the conversation among the characters. In its humility, the word said blends into the background and allows the characters’ words—the more important parts of the dialogue—to carry the scene.

At the same time, throughout their books, Lewis and Tolkien use other words besides said, when they fit naturally into the story: replied, returned, exclaimed, shouted, sobbed, growled, interrupted, whispered, thundered, cried, bellowed. These words, however, are never forced nor overused. They are not employed for the sake of being “synonyms for said” but for their own merit. They propel the dialogue without distracting from it. Synonyms can assist or detract, depending on their usefulness, and writers must be free to determine which words to choose based on their precision, not on arbitrary rules that deem useful words unacceptable simply because they are common.

A Sad Consequence of Shunning Common Words

“Write in a way that comes naturally,” Strunk and White advise in their classic writer’s guide, The Elements of Style. “Do not explain too much. . . . Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: ‘he consoled,’ ‘she congratulated.’ They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.”

The same mindset that compels educators to restrict young writers from using said often spreads its injustice to other words considered “boring and weak” as well: words such as go, see, and good. I hope that someday down the road, all of these students will discover Strunk and White’s book, where gems of guidance such as, “Do not be tempted by the twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able,” will open wide the door for them to restore the most common and useful words to their lexicons.

Synonyms are valuable tools, not to be disparaged. I write with a thesaurus at my fingertips, and finding the best word for each situation is as satisfying to me as pressing the final piece into a difficult puzzle might be to a jigsaw enthusiast. To encourage variety in word choice is a worthy lesson, if a student learns to choose words based on their degree of usefulness and not on their novelty.

Repressing and even banning common words, however, is a harmful way to push synonyms. Not only does it force a child to employ words in their writing that might be less effective than their common counterparts, but it has a sad—I would even say heartbreaking—effect on their reading.

A nine-year-old girl who had previously enjoyed authors such as Milne, Tolkien, and Lewis entered a writing program that banned words such as said, come, look, go, and good. Soon after, the girl said to her mother, “I guess these authors [Milne, Tolkien, Lewis] aren’t as great as I thought. They use those words.”

Her impression will be difficult to reverse. Every time she reads the works of great authors, she will now see those banned words as signs of bad writing, and the books will be ruined for her. Sadly, her reaction is not uncommon.

This is the effect that restricting words has on a young, impressionable mind. Those words can become a source of confusion for a lifetime.

The time has come to revive respect for the common word, before any more young readers and writers suffer the detrimental effects of a literary economy that prizes the twenty-dollar word and eschews the ten-center. Let the wardens release said and its fellow commoners from the prison of unjustly jailed words, so that children may understand writing and reading as a reflection of a world in which the ordinary and the uncommon dwell together in the harmony of mutual appreciation.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “News from My Lad” by James Campbell (1828-1893), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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