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In praise of the plain vanilla verb 'to say'

The Monitor's language columnist discovers helpful guidance on the words that help you attribute words to people.

By Ruth Walker / August 26, 2009



I've had a couple of reminders over the past 24 hours of the value of plain vanilla language.

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One of them came from a radio talk show. A guest reminded listeners of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's use of the term "plain vanilla" to describe his ideal for the language of financial contracts. Many of these contracts, notably the ones for mortgage and credit-card agreements, are full of legalese. And they are rendered in the sort of typography that seems calculated to conceal rather than impart information.

Many people who have gotten into trouble after signing such contracts have found them to be not plain vanilla at all, but rather a very rocky road.

Less top of mind, perhaps, but still important to the integrity of communication, was a newsletter item that came my way on "verbs of attribution." This is the lofty-sounding term for what might also be described as "words that help you put words into other people's mouths." That is, they're a class of verbs used to attribute quotes to sources. They're the verbs a writer uses to say who said what, in other words.

And the reason they deserve attention is that writers often strain for elegant variation when they should stick with "say." I'm indebted for my awareness of this issue to Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the newsletter Copyediting. Her Tip of the Week recently cited the work of Douglas Perret Starr of Texas A&M University and his efforts to make his students understand why said is usually better than, for instance, averred.

"Most of my students," Professor Starr explains, "tell me that their teachers (English literature, mostly) told them that it is unwise to use the same word more than once in a sentence and most of the time, more than once in a paragraph."

So they go synonym hunting. And they fail to realize that synonyms are not infinitely interchangeable. They end up quoting people as "acknowledging" or "admitting" or "claiming" something instead of simply "saying" it.

Starr tells his students: "The rule for writing is simple: Do not use any verb of attribution until you have looked up its definition and its usage and are prepared to support its use."

And then he shuts off their avenue of escape by presenting them with a list of these verbs and their meanings, with notes on subtleties of usage. The list runs from A to W, not quite Z, but starts with "said."

Some words are just meant to blend into the background, so that other words can stand out. "Said" is an excellent example of this. The line rulings on the paper in a ring binder need to be just visible enough to guide your handwriting but not so dark as to overwhelm it. The attributions to a series of quotes need to work the same way.

On the other hand, if a quoted source really is "admitting" something, or for the first time "acknowledging," that's a part of the story. And it's helpful to the reader if the writer makes that explicit. It may even take an extra sentence. "Mayor Jones admitted for the first time this morning that his hand has been in the cookie jar. At a press conference at city hall, he said...."

It's not unlike the favor public speakers do their listeners when they say, "I'm going to make three main points this evening."

Thanks for the reminder, Professor. And for now, I'll have vanilla.

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