On Writing Well: Verbs of Attribution

When I taught journalism at the University of Illinois, I created a Journalist’s Handbook that I required my students to purchase. I collected and revised the information contained in the Journalist’s Handbook for almost four decades. Some of it dates back to my time as a journalism student at the University of Kansas. Some of it is information that I accumulated and consigned to a three-ring binder during a 27-year career as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune.

The binder accompanied me during my years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America and as a national correspondent covering the West Coast of the United States. I kept it close at hand when I was an editor. As the years passed, the binder got older and frayed (sort of like me), but that never kept me from consulting it–a humbling reminder that you will never know all there is to know about writing, nor should you ever stop learning. My old binder was rife with coffee stains, grubby handprints, lots of barely readable hand-scribbled notes, and to top it off the pages kept falling out.

Before I created the handbook I used to pass out much of the material as handouts. I suspect many of those handouts were tossed away once my class ended. Below is one of the chapters of the handbook. Occasionally, I will post other chapters of the Handbook. Stay tuned!

Verbs of Attribution

For some reason, many writers have an aversion to using “said” when quoting someone or when a character in a novel or short story speaks. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with using the word “said” to convey something someone says. The fact is, most readers tend to skip over that part of a quoted comment anyway and if you put another verb there instead of “said” it often causes readers to stumble or slow down.

One thing you always want to remember is this: Do not make the reader work in order to read what you have written.

Here are a couple of simple rules.

Don’t overdo identification of speakers in a dialogue; craft alternating speech so that you minimize the necessity of tossing in “he said,” “she replied,” and so on.

You can vary the verbs you use, but don’t get carried away with numerous obscure synonyms for “said.”

And here is a BIG NO, NO. Never use a word for a nonspeaking sound to mark attribution: “‘At last, I have you in my clutches!’ he laughed diabolically.” You can’t “laugh” a sentence. Nor can you “giggle,” “smirk,” or “belch” a sentence.  

You don’t want readers to get a case of the hiccups when they are reading. Below is a list of substitutes for the word “said”—most of which are poor alternatives. Take a look and see if you have found yourself eschewing “said” for some inferior replacement. And if you absolutely MUST use one of these verbs in place of “said,” be sure to read the descriptions that follow each verb.

According to:

Best avoided because it casts a shadow, however slight, on the credibility of the speaker.  The raising of such a doubt may be desired on occasion; then, of course, according to is suitable.  It means “that’s when he/she thinks.”

Admitted:

See pointed out.

Advised:

A  common gaucherie when it displaces said.  In this, “Small craft warnings are up, he/she advised,” the word is journalese.

Affirmed:

Close to declared.  It implies reiteration of a previous statement or position.

Alleged:

Means “declared as if under oath but without proof.”  Used often by reporters hoping to get themselves off the hook in police stories.  Does not give immunity for libel.

Announced:

Means “made known publicly; proclaimed.”

Averred:

Means “verified or proved to be true in pleading a cause; declared positively.  Uncommon word.  Eschew.

Commented:

Strictly speaking, an observation on something.  Unsuitable for attribution of an offhand statement.

Conceded:

See pointed out.

Contended:

One of the most disagreeable misused words in the lexicon of attribution.  It denotes controversy or disagreement.  When those conditions are absent, the word should also be missing.  Raunchier reporters drop contended in at random where said or something else neutral is called for.

Declared:

Means “made known formally or explicitly; stated emphatically.”  Formal.

Disclosed:

See revealed.

Explained:

Students often use it to attribute commonplace remarks that are not explanations; that is, remarks that are not clarifications of something presented before.  This inescapably brings to mind Ring Lardner’s “Shut up,” he explained.

Maintained:

Means “upheld in argument; contended for, asserted, declared.  “The word should be used in reference to a statement backing up a previously defined position, or at least one made with some emphasis.  For attribution, it is more or less interchangeable with CONTENDED and AFFIRMED.

Observed:

Means “uttered as a remark.”   Suitable for casual statements, like REMARKED.

Mentioned:

Means “referred to, cited by name.”  The commonest error here is in using the word as an intransitive verb:  “The book was poorly written,” he/she mentioned.  MENTION requires an object:  “He/she mentioned his tomato garden.”

Pointed Out:

        Implies truth or factualness.  Thus it must be used with care lest the writer (and the publication) unwittingly associate himself with what is only speculation or opinion and thus give the effect of editorializing.  ADMITTED, CONCEDED, NOTED, and CITED THE FACT are similarly tainted.

 Remarked:

        Means “took notice of; observed.”  Offhand, casual.

Reported:

Means “gave an account of; told what happened; narrated, related.”  Word conveys some doubt of authenticity, or absence of verification:  “He/she was reported to have fled the country.”  This example is not direct attribution, as in “The coast is clear, he/she reported.”

Revealed

Like DISCLOSED, suitable only in reference to what has been concealed.  Often misused where ANNOUNCED would be appropriate.

Stated:

Means “set forth in detail or formally declared.”  A great favorite, but too stiff for most contexts.  Most stateds should be replaced by saids.  The word is used habitually by young reporters with an impulse to make their stuff sound portentous, and by old ones who have never acquired a sensitivity to stereotypes.

Vowed:

Quaint. Too strong for most news stories. PROMISED is usually preferable.

Wrote:

Sometimes misused in reference to what has been published, as in “The Daily News wrote in its Monday editions that STATED is abolished.”  Writers write.  Publications publish.  In the example, SAID or perhaps REPORTED would have been better.

 

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