Dead Words

“‘We call them dead words,’ said a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, California.  She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.  ‘There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,’ she added.”  According to The Wall Street Journal, the elimination of words like “good,” “bad” and “said” is the latest fad among those charged with instructing our young.

Regular readers of this blog know I’m a fan of finding just the right word.  Each one has its own nuance, however slight, and precisely the right one is a delight for the writer as well as the reader.  But–banning a word because someone finds it “boring” (the teacher mentioned above has written a manual called “Banish Boring Words”) deprives the writer of a tool he may very well need.  The usual object of writing is to get an idea across to someone else, not to score points with “sophisticated” words.  Fancy words, especially if employed indiscriminately, often get in the way.

One of the most “boring” words cited in the article is “said.”  But “said” is indispensable to writers of fiction.  It is used in dialogue as an indicator, an almost invisible word that tells the reader who is speaking.  When people actually speak, no such indicator is needed, so for dialogue as real as possible the author uses a word, “said,” that the reader doesn’t even notice.

According to the Journal, the Powell River Board of Education in British Columbia lists 397 alternatives on its website, including “emitted,” “beseeched,” “sniveled,” and “spewed.”  Can you imagine a page of dialogue where characters emit, beseech, snivel and spew?  Would you even pay attention to what they’re saying?  Plus, it violates Elmore Leonard”s Third Rule of Writing.   Sophisticated words have their place, but so do boring ones.

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