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Said Bookism

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"Are you lost, Daddy?" I asked tenderly.
"Shut up," he explained.
Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants

A Said Bookism is a variety of Purple Prose in which the writer goes out of their way to avoid the word "said". It was quite the fashion at one point, so much so that there were "said books", which were lists of verbs that could be used instead of "said". You could use "exclaimed", "emoted", "sighed", "rumbled", "hissed", "pontificated", "enquired"... there was no shortage of them.

But it's not considered particularly good form. Using words like this tends to be distracting, particularly when it delves into Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness. And using them all the time can lessen the impact of using a word other than "said". If every line is growled, snarled, or hissed, it becomes much harder to tell when a character is particularly angry — and the writing just looks ridiculous. People are so used to the word "said" that they can mentally skip over it when reading; when the word changes over and over again, it becomes a distraction. It also looks like the author is trying too hard to be sophisticated, which makes the work look more forced and unnatural.

The idea was to avoid repetition, which indeed can be annoying. But employing the Author Vocabulary Calendar isn't the best way to do this. Good authors can avoid extensive repetition of "said" by using more than just the dialogue tags to explain how the characters are talking. Descriptions of the speaker's posture, expression, or body language can easily give readers the tools they need to imagine how the character is talking. Subtext is also useful; there are some lines of dialogue that you can't imagine spoken in any other way. This also helps to avoid the characters becoming Talking Heads.

As detailed in the Real Life section below, part of the reason for the prevalence of this trope is the rather aggressive methods schools take to prevent students from overusing the word ‘said’ in essays and creative writing tasks. While there are a multitude of words that are synonyms of said, often the original word itself is just as good when used in combination with an appropriate set of its counterparts, and context is important - read on!

The problems with Said Bookisms can vary depending on the specific word you're using:

  • Words like "whispered" or "shouted" are okay, as long as that's what the character is actually doing — they're useful if the reader needs to know that the character speaking more loudly or softly than one would expect. If every line is whispered or shouted, the impact is lost quickly. It's much easier to just describe a character once as having No Indoor Voice.
  • Words that don't actually describe speech are especially frowned upon. Using "laughed" or "sighed" as a dialogue tag (as opposed to noting that a character laughed or sighed) can be distracting. Using "smiled" or "shrugged" as a dialogue tag is totally nonsensical — you can't smile or shrug a line.
  • Some dialogue tags only make sense for lines with specific sounds in them. A line that is "hissed" makes no sense if it has no sibilants in it (the line "I really like beer" doesn't work in Sssssnaketalk). Similarly, you can't "snap" a Wall of Text.
  • A few dialogue tags, like "ejaculated", have come to gain connotations which render them unusable in serious text.

As always, Tropes Are Tools — a Said Bookism can be effective, in certain situations:

  • If used sparingly, a Said Bookism can be very evocative. It's the overuse that's the problem; if all of a sudden, you break out a bookism, it makes the line stand out. It's like the difference between a Cluster F-Bomb and a Precision F-Strike; the same principle applies here.
  • Some specific Said Bookisms are common enough that they are functionally equivalent to "said". "Asked" and "replied" are among the most common; they're widely considered perfectly fine, as long as that's what the characters are actually doing.
  • An unusual Said Bookism can provide enough Bathos to be a good source of comedy, as seen in the page quote.
  • Some languages are more tolerant of Said Bookisms than others; Spanish is a good example. If you want to Woolsify something into Spanish, you're gonna need to know some "Dijo Bookisms".

A subtrope of Purple Prose. Compare Tom Swiftie, which is a punny adverb sprung from the line of dialogue it tags. See also "Burly Detective" Syndrome, Delusions of Eloquence, Author Vocabulary Calendar, and Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness.

Not to be confused with something said by a character named Bookism.


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    Comic Books 
  • Tomorrow Stories:
    • In one special, Splash Brannigan decides to act like a Film Noir-slash-dime novel hero, and narrates everything that happens to him. So this is how conversations go with him:
      Splash: "Take it easy, toots!", I screamed. "I'm simply considering a career as a 1930's film noir detective!"
      Daisy: But it's 2005! You'll never find suitable premises!
      Splash: ...she moaned, seductively.
    • At one point Daisy specifically tells him not to say "she said". Throughout the story, he basically uses every other word that could possibly mean "spoke", and a couple that couldn't, paired with increasingly ridiculous adverbs.

    Fan Works 
  • The End Is Near uses a lot of these, often combined with adverbs.
    "What'cha playin'?" Mello inquired eloquently.
    "Something violent," he answered, voice slightly strained. "What are you doing here?"
    "Near is mysteriously absent," Mello reported dutifully.
  • My Immortal has a sequence of these in Chapter 6:
    “I’m so sorry.” he said in a shy voice.
    “That’s all right. What’s your name?” I questioned.
    “My name’s Harry Potter, although most people call me Vampire these days.” he grumbled.
    “Why?” I exclaimed.
    “Because I love the taste of human blood.” he giggled.
    “Well, I am a vampire.” I confessed.
    “Really?” he whimpered.
    “Yeah.” I roared.
    ENOUGH! with the dialogue tags. (I don't care what your English teacher told you, "said" is fine.)
  • Metroid High School, to a downright ridiculous extent. The word "said" is used maybe two times in the entire story.
  • Past Sins: "Offered" is used quite a bit.
  • From Fake Dreams Almost every conversation utilizes some form of repetitive dialogue tag.
  • Homestuck high, with an intrepid disregard for the actual meaning of the words used, up to the point of "she eviscerated softly".
  • Saki: After Story does this to the point at which "said" is only used by characters who are speaking in reference to what they or others have said, never to describe dialogue.
  • Nearly every line of dialogue in Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles gets its own verb and adverb.
  • XSGCOM gets a lot of mileage out of "opined."
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! Reality's Curtain averts this with extreme prejudice, most lines are attributed with 'said' or some form of action performed by the speaker. The author has also had a paragraph on their profile at one point detailing their contempt for this trope.
  • Although The Keys Stand Alone is hardly guilty of this trope, there is a scene when the author deliberately did not use "said" at all—when the Pyar gods speak with the four. The two younger gods merely reiterate, in different words, what the primary god says, and every one of their speaking verbs is different. The implication is that what the gods are saying is, for the most part, both pretentious and useless.
  • Child of Grace avoids not only 'said' but 'asked', substituting 'queried', 'questioned', and 'interrogated' in completely inappropriate places.
  • Fulfilling the Vow has a lot of these. In addition to the usual substitutions, characters dismiss, probe, ponder, guess and so on.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Stolen Kisses: Discussed Trope. Henri asks for a different word to use instead of "say" as he's already used it ten times in writing his report that morning.

  • The trope name comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, which lists it as a common mistake made by beginning writers.
  • The Tom Swift books were notorious for this, leading to the invention of the Tom Swiftie.
  • Biggles does this all the time. Algy and Ginger might be guilty of saying things, but Biggles and Von Stalhein never are.
  • The Harry Potter series had a few notorious examples:
    "We're not going to use magic?" Ron ejaculated loudly.
    "Snape!" Slughorn ejaculated.
  • "Don't use this trope," How NOT to Write a Novel advised repeatedly. However, they don't lay down an absolute rule against adverbs, saying that they can add nuance to dialog that won't come across from what is said (the adverb coldly, for instance, completely changes the meaning of a line like "I love you"), but they still strongly recommend that adverbs be used carefully and very sparingly on dialog tags.
  • Nobody ever seems to just 'say' things in The Twilight Saga, as skewered expertly here.
    "Didn't you ever go with a boyfriend or something?" Jess asked dubiously.
    "Really," I tried to convince her, not wanting to confess my dancing problems. "I've never had a boyfriend or anything close. I didn't go out much."
    "Why not?" Jessica demanded.
    "No one asked me," I answered honestly.
    She looked skeptical. "People ask you out here," she reminded me, "and you tell them no."
    "Well, except for Tyler," Angela amended quietly.
    "Excuse me?" I gasped. "What did you say?"
    "Tyler told everyone he's taking you to prom," Jessica informed me with suspicious eyes.
    "He said what?" I sounded like I was choking.
    "I told you it wasn't true," Angela murmured to Jessica.
  • Dave Barry's Twilight parody Fangs of Endearment does it on every single dialogue tag.
  • Stephen King voiced his disgust for this in On Writing: "Don't do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is 'said', as in 'he said', 'she said', 'Bill said', 'Monica said'." He also provides the best example of doing it wrong: "'You fucking tease!', Bill jerked out."
  • Defended by Lawrence Block in Telling Lies For Fun and Profit, in which he says that replacements for "said" can enliven a story, so long as they're not used with a heavy hand:
    I do feel that any number of alternate verbs have their uses from time to time. They can be good accent points in dialogue, and the less frequently you employ them the more effective they will be.
  • And from Shirley Jackson:
    All remarks can be said. Every time you use a fancy word your reader is going to turn his head to look at it going by and sometimes he may not turn his head back again. My own name for this kind of overexcited talking is the-other-responded. As in this example: "'Then I’m for a swim,'" cried Jack, a gallant flush mantling his cheek. "'And I am with you!' the other responded."
  • In the Inheritance Cycle, the infamous: "'Sorry,' apologized Brom."
  • Occasionally, Timothy Zahn's otherwise excellent Dragonback Trilogy falls prey to this. This actually crops up in pretty much all of his work. Choices of One follows the Eragon example above: "'Sorry,' Luke apologized."
  • Warrior Cats falls into this sometimes, though this mostly is because the authors replace every instance of the word "said" with "meowed", which can get a little weird sometimes and the authors want to avoid that. Apart from that, there are still a lot of said bookisms, like "ventured."
  • The fantasy author Robert Asprin is another who sometimes had problems with this. Characters in the Myth Adventures will often "retort" to something "argued" to them.
  • Elmore Leonard includes in his Rules of Writing "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." Another rule expands on that slightly: "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said.'"
  • The Eye of Argon. Nothing is ever "said" — instead it is "husked" or "ejaculated" or "stated whimsicoracally".
  • Atlanta Nights uses this quite a bit, as one of many deliberately bad writing techniques.
  • "The word said is to prose what the arrow of a word balloon is to comics", Neil Gaiman blogged.
  • The Great Gatsby is not only full of these, it's full of redundant ones, like "snorted contemptuously."
  • Fifty Shades of Grey is very fond of 'murmur', even using it four times on one page. People are also fond of whispering things. Also, dialogue often gets tagged with actions, in some cases not by the actual speaker. This can make it quite hard to tell who's talking at any given time.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, Hodor's dialogue is frequently tagged with Said Bookisms because he can only say his name, such as "Hodor, Hodor agreed" or "Hodor, Hodor protested". Also reinsubverted or something on at least one occasion in which the word "hodor" is used as a Said Bookism in-universe.
  • Darren Shan, most famous for The Saga of Darren Shan, likes to use these regardless of whether they're needed or not. He once used the word "tsked." No, really.
  • Classic science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum's most famous short story is "A Martian Odyssey," which he followed with a sequel, "The Valley of Dreams." They involve a team of astronauts who have traveled to Mars, including a German named Putz as a minor character. Both stories give him a chance to "ejaculate" a line of dialogue.
  • Walter Kerr's How Not to Write a Play cautions playwrights against the theatrical equivalent of this trope, which is to lead every significant line of dialogue with an adverb in parentheses.
  • In The Phantom Tollbooth, the members of King Azaz's cabinet (the Minister of Meaning, the Duke of Definition, The Earl of Essence, the Count of Countenance, and the Undersecretary of Understanding) talk like this all the time, to demonstrate how wasteful they are with words.
  • This is really prevalent throughout Strength & Justice. Nearly every line of dialogue will have this.
  • Played for Laughs, like pretty much everything else, in Bored of the Rings:
    Spam gagged, and his arm went limp. "Die," he suggested.
  • Some Horus Heresy authors do this at times, leading to quite a jarring effect in longer conversations. An example from Deathfire, which is positively filled up with those:
    "Did you see that?" asked Venator.
    "A half-naked legionary," Finius concurred.
    "Inviglio's survivor?" suggested Corvun.
    "Sprinting for the bridge," added Lenator.
  • Everyone, mortal and supernatural, seems to murmur a lot in The Dresden Files.
  • Discussed in Up the Down Staircase. When a student's book report sounds awkward because of his use of "depicts" and "portrays," Miss Barrett tells her class there is nothing wrong with the word "says."
  • Fabian Black takes this to bizarre extremes, once even using "patted Michael's bottom," which would make sense only if Michael and the person speaking had worked out a bottom-patting language.
  • In Like People in History by Felice Picano, entire passages of dialog use this. Whether Picano is being serious or poking fun at this trope, the effect is tedious.
  • Ogden Nash's poem "To Ee is Human" parodies this by giving every line of Mr Webster's dialogue one, and every line of Mr Mirriam's a synonym that doesn't work (for instance, if Webster "barks" a line, them Mirriam "bowwows" one.)
  • Agatha Christie's writings are full of "ejaculated [insert character name]" whenever anyone speaks right after being startled.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Said Bookism appears in-universe, played for pathos, in The Wire, when Ziggy Sobotka insists that a character didn't say something, he begged. But he's not a writer. He's reviewing his murder confession, and it was his victim who begged, "Please don't shoot me."
    Suspect: But that's not going to mess you up, though, right?
    Detective: No, it's more descriptive like that. It's good. Thanks.

  • Played for laughs in Flight of the Conchords Fractured Fairy Tale "Albi the Racist Dragon";
    Just at that moment, he felt a tiny little hand rest upon his tail. And who should that little hand belong to, but the badly burnt Albanian boy from the day before.
    "What are you doing here? I thought I killed you yesterday," grumbled Albi, quite racistly.
    "No Albi, you didn't kill me with your dragon flames—I crawled to safety. But you did leave me very badly disfigured," laughed the boy.

    Web Animation 


    Web Original 
  • How to Write Badly Well parodies this in "Banish 'said' from your vocabulary."
  • Zigzagged in Alice and Bob, with attempts at avoiding "said" and then just settling on that word.
  • The Onion ran a brief article where the author of a new book persistently used "shrugged" as every said bookism. When asked about this, said author expressed her indifference with a quick raising of her shoulders.
  • To quote a tweet from the Twitter blog Worst Muse:
    ""Said" is so boring. You should bring back "ejaculated.""
  • Overuse of Said Bookism is a chargeable offense in the PPC. It can also infect agents, as shown in this mission.

    Real Life 
  • Many English classes in both British and American schools specifically require students to write this way, as well as proscribing all use of "be" verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). It can leave students reaching for a thesaurus, and exchanging saids for other words willy-nilly.
  • German classes in German-speaking countries tend to go the same route by docking points for repetitive word usage. If you attempt to avert this trope there, chances are you'll end up with a suboptimal grade even if everything else in your essay is perfect.
  • Played completely straight in Russian, Spanish and French—if you don't use Said Bookism, you will be considered an okay writer at best.
  • Also, Spanish uses a different marker for dialogue and quotations (dialogue lines are preceded by long dashes) and it's customary to either have long stretches of dialogue without narration, use inline narration only when strictly necessary (for example if there are more than two people) and have most descriptive narration in paragraphs in between the lines o dialogue. In fact when a Spanish speaker first sees English-style dialogue the effect can be strangely detached, like instead of watching a dialogue we are seeing it quoted by the narrator, and if there are "saids" they are not as invisible as the seem to an Anglophone, they are a stark reminder that the narrator is there.
  • Czech is also notable in this. Thanks to prefixes and suffixes, Czech verbs tend to be much more precise in their meanings than English ones and it is possible to derive many variations on one word. It is therefore actually a natural feature of the language for them to be used in this way. Using the very broad and simple řekl(a) ("said") exclusively or very often would not only look boring and unimaginative, but also extremely repetitive. (However, in other areas of writing, the strict school insistence on avoiding repetition at all costs can even in Czech mislead beginning writers into relying too heavily on Purple Prose.)
    • Not only that, but Czech allows using dialogue tags that actually don't have anything to do with the dialogue: if someone, for example, blinks while speaking, you are perfectly in your right to use "blinked" as their dialogue tag. The reason might be that the verb "said" is already implied by the presence of direct speech / quotation marks as such, so the actual verb in the sentence might as well be anything else the character does that accompanies the speech and provides further information about what's happening.
  • Inverted with journalists. Journalists are trained to use the word "said" when quoting people, so as to avoid adding subtext, and to let the person's words speak for themselves.


Video Example(s):



James explains that the reason his book's characters are awkwardly "announcing" and "exclaiming" their dialogue is that the teacher banned the class from using the word 'said'.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / SaidBookism

Media sources: