My fourth-grade English teacher employed a list of words he called “D.N.U.’s,” for “do not use.” It was about a dozen words long and included get, nice, very, and thing. If he saw one in our papers he would flag it and make a tutting sound, although he didn’t always notice. The point, I assumed, was to make us think about the words we were using—to elevate our writing above the leaden defaults of a 9-year-old’s communicative needs.
According to the Wall Street Journal, this reasonable pedagogical technique has spawned a movement. And as with so many essentially humane causes before it, that movement has metastasized into a perverse and deadly totalitarianism. Its chief proponent is California middle school teacher Leilen Shelton, whose manual Banish Boring Words has, according to the Journal, sold 80,000 copies. Among the words Shelton has declared dead: said.
“You might use barked,” she said. “Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.” She certainly does. On the cover of Banish Boring Words—Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the Elementary Education category as I write, although that might reflect a surge of interest from the Journal story—is a crude cartoon of a boy thinking, “Instead of said I could use … snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, cried.” A Canadian school district similarly offers a list of 397 “verbs to substitute for ‘said.’ ”
To which anyone who has ever had to read a slush pile or a self-published autobiography will thunder, cry, retort, rejoin, or fume: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Replacing the word said with “colorful” or “lively” synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: “I’ll never cheat again!” is recognizable as a promise without “he vowed” after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the “never say said” rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.
“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” Shelton told the Journal’s James R. Hagerty. “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion.” The assumption here is that emotion is a desirable quality in every word of a sentence, that a rich word is always more appropriate than a plain one. You don’t have to invoke Hemingway, who made a fetish of plain words, to recognize that successful writing modulates the lavishness of its diction for effect, rather than cranking the dial all the way to maximum floridity and leaving it there.
Defenders of these restricted-word lists might argue that they’re an intermediate step for writers-in-training: First we’ll teach students to vary their vocabulary, and then to modulate their tone appropriately. The problem is that, on the evidence of all those slush piles, step two never takes place, and Shelton’s students go out into the world commanding and boasting and suggesting in the belief that they’re making their writing “more sophisticated” rather than less.
I once tutored a high school student who had written, in a biographical essay, the blameless clause “After becoming a teacher.” Her own teacher had “corrected” the phrase to “After achieving success as an educator.” This person was failing as an educator, as are the Powell River Board of Education and Leilen Shelton and everyone else who teaches this destructive rule.