If the novelist Elmore Leonard were still alive, there’s no doubt he’d object to a weird literary trend described in today’s Wall Street Journal. According to a piece by James R. Hagerty, a number of English teachers around the country have decided that the word “said” just isn’t interesting enough and are encouraging students to enrich their vocabularies by using “more sophisticated” verbs.
“The goal is livelier writing,” Mr. Hagerty writes. “The result can be confusion.”
Leonard, that purveyor of lucid language who, in his 10 rules of writing, declared, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” would surely have agreed with that sentiment.
Along with “said,” teachers are also going after “good,” “bad,” “nice,” “a lot,” “OK,” “fun,” “thing” and “stuff,” as well as “walk,” “run,” “happy,” “talk,” “go” and “see”—as Mr. Hagerty’s feature tells it.
Whether this is really good or bad—to use those dreaded words—is up for debate (though the Twitter pundits are offering a strong dissent). Of course “said” is an invaluable verb, and no words should be banned. But encouraging students to forego certain terms in favor of more creative ones is a useful exercise that could heighten a young writer’s sensitivity to the texture of language. On the other hand, it could result in a lot of prolix writing.
But the best writers are free thinkers, and if they are meant to prosper, they will disregard any rules that hinder their ability to communicate clearly—including Leonard’s smart yet ultimately stultifying list.