SAID-BOOKISMS.

I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as a “said book” listing innumerable substitutes for the simple and useful verb “said,” but that concept is the basis of the term “said-bookism,” known to most professional writers as something to avoid as a sure sign of amateurism. You can get examples and explanations many places, e.g. here and (in inimitable TV Tropes style) here; google the term for more. I’m posting about them because I’ve finally gotten irritated beyond endurance by an (otherwise excellent) book I’m reading, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh. Raleigh has interviewed a bunch of Russians who graduated from high school in 1967 (a year before me)—specifically, from the well-known Moscow School #20 (now 1239) and Saratov School #42, both elite institutions focused on teaching English and full of nomenklatura kids—and the information presented is riveting, to me at least; I’m getting a real sense of what it was like to grow up and go to school for my coevals in a country I’ve always been fascinated with.
But the writing! Raleigh has the expected academic sins of plodding prose enlivened by occasional attempts at slang or wit, but what really gets my goat are the said-bookisms; I’ve never seen so many collected in one place before, and they’re almost all wretchedly misused. I wouldn’t mind an occasional “exclaimed” or “complained,” but these are so awful you wonder whether he understands the meaning of the verbs. Let’s take “quipped”: “As Sofiya Vinogradova quipped, ‘Children with grandparents had a better childhood than those without.’” “Repeating a popular saying, Father Valentin quipped, ‘There are no atheists in the trenches.’” “The majority of members of the B class (BESHnik/beshniki), however, called attention to the distinction between the two groups [children of the Party elite and others]. As Irina Tsurkan quipped, ‘It’s probably the children of the Party officials who claim there was no difference.’” “‘It was never interesting there,’ quipped Tatyana Artyomova, ‘because the other kids were strangers.’” The mind boggles. Of course, there are normal, merely awkward and pointless said-bookisms like “‘If I see in a store evaporated milk made in Verkhovie, I buy it,’ stated Starik.” But the verb that infuriated me enough to post comes at the end of this paragraph:

But the elite schools did not prepare the interviewees for the oppressive politicization of college-level instruction that Anna Lyovina called “awful.” Going against the current [most students wanted to switch from night to day classes], she switched from the daytime to the evening division of Moscow’s IFL. “I did so after my freshman year. I thought I’d go out of my mind, because of the History of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], History of the CPSU, and History of the CPSU. It was torture. I couldn’t stand it. Then there was Military Science. There was far less of it in the evening division,” she said. Yet even there, “they constantly tried to indoctrinate us, ‘You are translators on the ideological front. You will interact with foreigners and you have to be careful, you have to be grounded.’” An old Bolshevik who taught Party history regaled her charges about how she carried out collectivization. As a child, however, Lyovina had been exposed to a counternarrative: “My dear nanny would tell me that all of her relatives from Tambov province, hard-working peasants who fed Russia, were exiled to Siberia. I couldn’t happily reply, Hoorah! Collectivization!” rationalized Anna.

“Rationalized Anna”?! All I can say is: what

Comments

  1. Garrigus Carraig says:

    I’m going to go ahead and call out the publisher: OUP USA. – Hat, you are exactly the person to ask. If I speculate that things have gotten worse, that this kind of editing catastrophe is more likely now that 30 years ago, am I suffering from Golden Age syndrome? I am not a copy editor nor a particularly voracious reader, yet it seems like the publishing industry is collapsing and copy editing budgets are being slashed or something. Forgive my cri de coeur.

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    There may or may not be an actual book about how to substitute for “said” but there is in fact a sheet of gibbering nonsense that English teachers are supposed to circulate and most of them do. There’s a lot of words on there which are not even grammatically correct — transitive verbs which don’t make sense dropped in the position of “said,” as well as a lot of words that don’t actually mean “said.” When I was teaching English I was generously given that sheet by every other teacher in the department, all of whom were so happy to have it because it made their lives so much less dreary not to have to read “said” over and over again.
    I didn’t use it, myself. I never even alluded to the non-problem of that word.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    Unless we think it’s the publisher’s fault in the sense that the manuscript they received just said “said” over and over and they actively demanded that poorly-chosen alternatives be swapped in, I’m not convinced it’s the role of an academic publisher to improve an author’s prose style in this sort of area. (Prof. Raleigh’s previous books have apparently been published by a variety of other academic presses, which I suppose could provide a way to test the publisher’s-fault thesis.) But if it’s just the author’s own ill-starred sense of “elegant variation” or whatever, maybe you should send your complaints instead to his dean or department chair (he’s currently in the Dep’t of History at UNC-Chapel Hill) or any surviving members of his dissertation committee (Indiana-Bloomington 1978). Or whatever Miss Thistlebottom he may have had for 8th grade English, although even fairly complete academic CV’s tend not to give up that sort of information.

  4. His use of ‘regaled’ is rebarbative.

  5. I don’t like being barbated even once myself (hence the bheard).

  6. Jeffry House says:

    Wasn’t this the reaon they invented Tom Swifties? http://www.fun-with-words.com/tom_swifties_a-e.html

  7. I’m sure I’ve seen advertisements for these things back when I was a lot younger. I personally think that the jeremaid against using any verb except said, asked and, very occasionally, exclaimed, has gone way too far, but seeing the example you quote at least shows me the motivation.
    Tom Swifties are a different phenomenon: they’re verb + adverb where the adverb makes a play on the rest of the sentence and probably has nothing to do with the actual manner of the utterance: “‘Let’s go,’ Tom said swiftly.”
    There’s a separate proscription against using adverbs of manner with generic motion verbs even when there isn’t a more specific verb that gives the same shade of meaning.

  8. Yes, dearieme, I stopped reading at regaled, jumping to the conclusion that I’d reached the point of the post. To be honest, I can’t even figure out what ‘rationalized’ means in this context.
    I confess that I used to use ‘opine’ as an adolescent. I think I got it from Capt. W.E. Johns.

  9. Oh “opined” is a fine word. He opined.

  10. I can’t remember Biggles & Ginger opining.
    Bathrobe, that book you mentioned to me a while back, Architecture in Uniform by Jean-Louis Cohen, turned out to be really interesting and well written. I read little bits of it at breakfast or in bed. I think he wrote it in English too, clever sod. It certainly doesn’t sound like a translation

  11. I’m not convinced it’s the role of an academic publisher to improve an author’s prose style in this sort of area.
    I dunno — allowing all those “quips” is borderline (maybe they’re hilarious in the original Russian?) but I would like to co-opine with Bathrobe that “rationalized” feels more like an error — the sort of thing that makes you wonder if you missed some crucial context earlier that would make what she said an actual rationalization for something.
    Not a serious error, mind you, but something a good academic publisher with an appropriate budget etc. should at least bring to the author’s attention. (Especially in a book of oral history.)

  12. maybe they’re hilarious in the original Russian?
    No, the guy simply doesn’t know what “quip” means. And there are other words like that in the text.
    But no, it’s not the publisher’s job. And it’s not my job, as copyeditor; if I had worked on this book, I would have queried the clearly incorrect usages (like “quipped”) but wouldn’t have said anything about the general issue of said-bookism (or the even more general issue of turgid academic prose). The author is responsible for being a good writer, and if they’re not, you can’t make them be one.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I have read (and hopefully not written) my share of turgid academic prose, but it seems astonishing to me that an academic writing in his own language would make so many mistakes about the meaning of relatively common words. Nobody knows the entire vocabulary of a language, so one or two slight misunderstandings of rare words would not cause much of a problem, but the many possible synonyms for ‘said’ here seem to be picked at random. The author in question is a historian, apparently a good one: perhaps he only reads works of history, where “quip” or “rationalize” are not likely to occur with great frequency? perhaps he had Roget’s Thesaurus at hand and just picked words here and there, without double-checking them in a real dictionary.

  14. No, the guy simply doesn’t know what “quip” means.
    That aside actually was a quip. (He pleaded.)

  15. and (in inimitable TV Tropes style) here
    At the same site there’s a German version of the dialog with a cute pun. Said-bookism is called Ent-SAG-ung [renunciation], to be understood here both as “removing ‘said’” and “abjuring the use of ‘said’”.

  16. So far as I remember, Compton-Burnett’s characters alway “said” what they said. She never used any verb other than “say”.

  17. … when reporting dialog.

  18. Tom Swifties don’t have to have an adverb. One of my 6th grade classmates came up with
    “Oh, my girdle!” she snapped.
    We all thought that was very funny back in 6th grade.
    Or perhaps
    “Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
    Quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
    Insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
    Impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?” he mused.

  19. “Come in” he said, entranced.

  20. “Easy serve”, he returned.

  21. “I use only e-mails now” he expostulated.

  22. One for Crown: English isn’t German it’s Norwegian.
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/12/language-history

  23. Just ran across another said-substitute that grates on me, “shared”:
    “My mother had an acquaintance who married someone in the military,” shared Poldyaeva.

  24. Here’s a new one:
    “People had money,” inserted Aleksandr Babushkin, “but there was nothing to buy.”

  25. I wonder if he used a thesaurus, and if so, how.
    I’ve been reading about Wittgenstein’s attempt to define art (and jolly clever it is) but I had to give up because I so hate the word “Wittgensteinian”. It’s overkill, by approximately three syllables. In worst case “Wittgenstein-spawned” would do ok.

  26. How about getting it down to three syllables by using Wittian? You know, like Crownian.

  27. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Hat. Perhaps there was no way they could guess that a fellow who had already cranked out a few books would make that kind of error.

  28. Frankly, I don’t think many people involved with the production of books even notice such things any more.

  29. From a paragraph about Saratovite Gennady Ivanov, who (unlike almost everyone else interviewed) justified the invasion of Afghanistan:
    “I was there as an advisor on criminal investigations. We had to deal with all sorts of contraband, he related.[...] “But in Afghanistan,” he lectured, “they overthrew the [legitimate] ruler.”[...] “We needed to go in so that we’d have a base there. After all, from the mountains all of Central Asia is visible with radar. It’s our weak underbelly,” he opined.
    Trifecta!

  30. I like Crownian. Crownian motion. It’s like Brownian motion, only faster.

  31. “That head wears a crown” he said, lying uneasily.

  32. Tom Swifties don’t have to have an adverb. One of my 6th grade classmates came up with
    “Oh, my girdle!” she snapped.
    We all thought that was very funny back in 6th grade.
    Or perhaps
    “Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
    Quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
    Insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
    Impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?”
    he mused.

  33. “Don’t send that telegram again!” he said, remorselessly.

  34. Best one yet:
    “We sat from morning until night in front of the television set and watched all of the congresses and wanted Sakharov to speak,” Irina exalted.

  35. “I’ve stopped brushing my teeth”, he said, crestfallen.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    Would that last one be less hideous if Irina had “exulted” rather than “exalted”? Maybe THAT one we can blame on the copy-editor . . .

  37. You overestimate this guy’s ability to wield the English language with even minimal competence. From p. 326:
    In July [Yeltsin] demonstrably resigned from the Communist Party.
    From p. 327:
    Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era, already in 1997, 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia.
    (My emphasis.)

  38. I thought “what” had to be, in your words, “on a line of its own”.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    epithet : perhaps confused with epitaph? But that sort of confusion does not explain all the other problems.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    “This is bland”, she said, exalted.

  41. Trond Engen says:

    “Salt”, she added, shaking.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    “I’m losing my spirits”, he expressed, still dripping.

  43. “I always enjoy Adorno on Beethoven,” postured Said bookishly.

  44. epithet : perhaps confused with epitaph?
    Very likely, but even if you substitute “epitaph” the sentence is ungrammatical (there is no noun representing what is “seen”).

  45. marie-lucie says:

    The sentence is poorly written, but I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence. At the time, this fact could have been considered an “omen” rather than an anticipated “epitaph” for the regime (certainly not an “epithet”).

  46. From the author’s website:
    During the summer of 2011, Professor Raleigh launched research on a biography of Soviet leader Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, who lorded over the Soviet state between 1964 and 1982.

  47. It’s as if Raleigh had read the same Russian writing/journalism textbooks as Vedomosti reporters or their Soviet predecessors. “Деньги-то водились у людей, – вставил (or: вмешивается) Бабушкин, – купить было нечего, вот беда”. “У мамы знакомая вышла замуж за военного”, – делится Полдяева. (Or признается; откровенничает; доверительно сообщает; понижает голос; говорит, закуривая…) It’s almost Dovlatovian (as in Compromise) in its intimate репортажность. The inimitable late Soviet style, now in an English translation.
    These days, Vedomosti and Kommersant also use “know”: “The cabinet won’t change its mind,” knows a high-ranking source. Знает sounds very odd, but one gets used to everything over time.

  48. The sentence is poorly written, but I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence.
    That’s not how grammar works. You can’t just pick some chunk of a sentence and decide it’s a “fact”; facts aren’t part of grammar. There has to be a noun or noun phrase to be the object of “see,” and there is nothing even vaguely resembling that. Furthermore, even if there were such a noun, using “seen” that way sounds like the worst sort of journalese: “Seen at the Piggly-Wiggly at 3:05 that afternoon, Miss Daisy was…” To make the sentence any kind of acceptable English, you’d have to completely revamp it: “The fact that 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia can be seen as…”
    Alexei K.: I think you’ve got it; this poor fellow has absorbed late Soviet officialese into his very flesh, and it sweats out into his prose whenever he tries to write. Now I feel sorry for him.

  49. narrowmargin says:

    I’ve never heard of the phrase “said-bookism”. I’d always known them as “attributive phrases”.
    That said, perhaps the two novels (in English) that completely avoid them are Finnegans Wake and JR. (The latter is about 99% dialogue with almost no attributive phrases, and a GREAT comic novel, to boot.)

  50. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I agree with you. I was talking about the semantics of this sentence, not the grammaticality.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era, already in 1997, 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia.

    Hat: [... T]he sentence is ungrammatical (there is no noun representing what is “seen”).
    m-l: I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence.
    Hat: That’s not how grammar works. You can’t just pick some chunk of a sentence and decide it’s a “fact”; facts aren’t part of grammar. There has to be a noun or noun phrase to be the object of “see,” and there is nothing even vaguely resembling that.
    m-l: LH, I agree with you.
    Not so fast! I think I can see how it works for the author and what you were aiming at. “Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era” is an adverbial clause used as a sentence adverb, and it could be replaced with a simple adverb like ominously, or sadly. What is thus “seen” is the whole situation of the main clause. It may well be innovative, but if so, it looks to me as a fairly straightforward development of existing syntax. (This “sentence-adverbial clause” doesn’t fit too well with what comes after, but that’s another matter, reflecting bad writing.)

  52. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules For Writers, Rule No. 3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    I think the kind of pathological synonymizing you describe comes out of a fear of being thought of as “simple,” which is the kiss of death in the fashion show that is modern academic writing.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era, in keeping with the superabundance and ornateness of everything (words, food, furniture, house construction, men’s facial hair, women’s clothing, etc), which passed for hallmarks of civilization at the time.

  54. Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era
    A strange, bald assertion. Evidence? A single author or citation?
    “It also suggests you’ve never had occasion to read any contemporary romance novels,” he moaned, intoned, ejaculated, countered, rejoined, averred, parried, doubted, and expostulated.

  55. The worst case of said-avoidance I’ve encountered was in Hebrew, the one time I tried my hand at translating a novel (from Hebrew into English). The author’s disdain for the Hebrew equivalent of said was such that he regularly substituted for it, not a fancier verb, but a whole verb phrase, usually one that restated in the narrator’s own words the content of the preceding bit of dialogue. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she put an end to the conversation. (This is borderline grammatical in English, of course; it’s slightly better in Hebrew, but not much.) I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the large majority of dialogue lines were followed by these bits of authorial self-exegesis. What to do with them in translation was a dilemma; I ended up dropping only the very worst ones.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    laowai: Victorian said-words
    I don’t have a reference, but I remember reading Dickens and other Victorians as a student and being struck by the abundance of verbs such as the ones you cite about romance novels. I am not terribly familiar with the latter, but from the few I have seen they are rather conservative in style, closer to the 19th than the 20th century ideal.

  57. The Turkey City Lexicon, a primer for sf writing workshops on the Science Fiction Writers of America site, says (or claims, postulates, tells us, asserts, thunders, opines, fact-states etc) that “said-book” comes from pamphlets “sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.”
    The Lexicon comprises snippets on various issues: “Burly Detective” Syndrome, Brand Name Fever, Roget’s Disease, Hand Waving, White Room Syndrome, Plot Coupons, Idiot Plots, Funny-hat characterization, “As You Know Bob”, and more.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era

    The worst and funniest example, however, is much younger. I’m talking about The Eye of Argon. Find the Wikipedia article at your own risk.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks David, but unfortunately the article only gives a couple of sentences, not quite enough to judge of the style, especially since there is no “said” replacement.

  60. Here‘s the whole thing, if you dare.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Wow!

  62. I think you mean: “By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!”

  63. David Marjanović says:

    The Wikipedia article has a list of “External links” to several versions of the text.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    I think that once is enough for me.

  65. Not bad for a 16-year-old. He might have been good had he kept going, but apparently the ridicule discouraged him.

  66. These days he’d have self-published it, it would have gone viral, and he’d be a millionare today.

  67. Christopher Paolini has made a fortune on fantasy novels of nearly the same quality that he wrote at about the same age–although by the time he got to the last few, he should have been old enough to know better…

  68. Better than what? Obviously Pasolini was weeping about his prose style … all the way to the bank.

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