". . .the word of God is not bound." II Tim. 2:9b

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Step Away From the Thesaurus

If you teach writing, pop over to the Wall Street Journal for a read. James R. Hagerty's recent article "'Use More Expressive Words!' Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore" explores the trend of teachers banning boring words and even giving them a mock funeral. The trend has been around for a while and shows no signs of dying.

As a writing student and now as a writing teacher, I am glad the downside of using fancy synonyms is finally getting some attention. James R. Hagerty's article is even-handed, but it brings to light some detriments of forbidding the use of simple words like "said." Detriments you won't see by scrolling Pinterest, where well-meaning teachers celebrate the use of vibrant synonyms to the complete exclusion of certain everyday words.

Among a serious writer's many challenges is preventing the reader from lurching to a halt and waking up from the "vivid and continuous dream," as John Gardner famously puts it. You want your reader enjoying your writing, not thinking, "Ooo, another ten-dollar word!" every other line.

People think using "said" too often is repetitive and therefore boring. In reality, the word "said" becomes invisible. It's like "the" or "and." It's a necessary building block of many sentences, though not the shiniest or most exciting of blocks.

If you want to change things up when writing dialogue, you don't have to resort to the thesaurus. You can often leave out the dialogue tags altogether:

Sherman's hour in detention was up. "See you tomorrow, Mrs. Phillips."
"See you tomorrow."

Far on the other end of the spectrum are the kind of said-synonyms found on lengthy lists pinned so eagerly on Pinterest: growled, implied, rasped, whispered, squealed.

There's a reason Hemingway, Dickens, and other greats "get a pass" on their use of "said" and other simple words. It's not because they're Hemingway and Dickens and we're not. It's because they're good writers, and because simple words used well are valuable in their own right.

Mark Twain said, "Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do."

Although the Bible doesn't comment specifically on the word "said," it does use it often (some 4002 times in the KJV). Proverbs 25:11 says, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." The emphasis seems to be on how appropriate and timely the words are, not how unusual.

There's beauty in simplicity. Less is more.

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