The Automatic

Although the English language does not have the richness of touted others, it does contain a profusion of words that convey a variant of the act of speaking. One can “aver,” “declaim,” “insist,” “protest,” or “thunder.” In particular genres of fiction, such as historical romance, heroines lustily engage in employing all shades of these words. Unfortunately for them, even the authors they are trying to invoke, especially poor Jane Austen, never used these words so industriously.

The reason is simple: such colorful words call attention to themselves. More to the point, they compete for the reader’s attention with what the character just said. At the end of a sentence, am I remembering “We’ll see about that” or “she riposted”? Humble reader that I am, I’d be struggling with “riposted.” What does that mean, again? I ask myself, feeling the specter of the looming dunce cap. What is worse, if such descriptors are used regularly, the reader starts feeling bounced between what is said and how it is said. “I really can’t comment on what is a private matter”—by mid-sentence I’m looking ahead: how did she say that? The end result is a good deal of fatigue and possibly disgust because what everyone is saying isn’t all that interesting, anyway.

The word “say” is what I call an automatic. It exists, like the word “the,” in order to perform a necessary function in a sentence. It identifies the reason that words are put inside quotation marks. Most of the time, we’re interested in what is being said, not how it is being said. Every once in a while, using such a word helps the reader. For instance, “demand” is different from “allow,” and we need to know that because the words spoken might be taken several ways. I would advise, however, that such usage occur infrequently. I actually believe that an adverb (dreaded though they are) used in conjunction with “said” can often feel more natural, and thus expressive.

Exercise: Review a passage of dialogue and see which words are used to describe what is being spoken. If an active verb other than “said” is used often, see if you can change the words being spoken to convey what that verb means. You’ll find that your dialogue becomes less pedestrian because you’re not relying on these identifying tags to do the work.

“Few realise that English poetry is rather like the British constitution, surrounded by pompous precedents and reverences.”
—Austin Clarke

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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