Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett

It's best to use said when reporting someone's words

When reporting someone’s words, it’s best to use said in most cases.

Newspaper and other style guides disagree over whether to use past tense (said) or present tense (says).

It doesn’t matter which. Pick one and stick with it. At times you may need to write someone says this now, but said something different in the past.

While you can use said even with written words -  if you are quoting what someone wrote in a mail or in tweet - it is better to make it clear the person wasn’t talking at the time.

Alternative verbs are mainly pompous or value-laden. I once worked with a journalist who sprinkled his copy with words like averred or commented because he thought said was too dull.

Neither word adds useful information. The pompous language may frighten off some readers. To me it read like something from Edwardian times.

##Not using said sows seeds of doubt

Your readers may interpret any alternative to said as suggesting the speaker is lying, misinformed or doesn’t know what they are talking about. Think of claimed or according to.

It is perfectly OK to used claimed or according to when you want readers to understand there may be some doubt.

One alternative I allow myself is the verb ask. This only works when someone is clearly asking a question.

##How about when writing fiction?

Fiction writer Elemore Leonard has another perspective on this. In his excellent Ten rules of writing he said:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Leonard wrote fast-paced fiction with terrific dialogue, if sticking with the one word was good enough for him, it is good enough for the rest of us.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed I wrote: Elmore Leonard said not says. The writer died in 2013, that’s definitely past-tense.