[Analysis] Looking at “said-isms”

I don’t know of a single writer who has made it who hasn’t heard the rule about “said-isms”, those verbs writers use to avoid “said.” During the last Orycon, one panelist (whose attribution escapes me) said “‘said’ is punctuation” and that’s a guideline I generally agree with. This “rule” came up recently in my writing group, too, that “real writers” don’t use anything but ‘said’.

Never mind the countless pins on my Pinterest Writing Board with tens to hundreds of ways to avoid using “said.”

I basically agree with the rule against saidisms. I tend to write dialog heavy and found even writing a simple play helps push the writer away from ‘said-isms’ to encompassing the verb into the dialog itself.

But being a geek, I wanted to know if this was a hard and fast rule. Sure, we can remember the bad examples easily enough. The number of times Holmes and Watson ejaculated in conversation is a gigglefest to the modern reader. I can pick up a book or short story and random and pin point things, but that’s hardly a proper sample, so I did something else. I took a story that I had as a text file on my desktop (A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap) and cranked up Python and fed it a regular expresson or three, and came up with this test sample.

There are 87 instances of dialog. Everything put between two quotation marks counts as dialog in this. There are four ways to end dialog in fiction: Comma, Period, Question Mark, Exclamation Point. Using the comma to end dialog implies the continuation of the sentence. The question mark can sometimes be the end of the sentence, and sometimes not. I suppose the exclamation point can also be non-terminal puncuation as well.

Here are the numbers:

Punctuation Total Uses No attribution Said X X Said Other Verbs
Comma 30 1 24 0 calls, echoes, answers (x3)
Period 33 25 0 0
Exclamation Point 3 1 0 0 cried, shouts
Question Mark 21 16 0 5

This story is also written in present tense with past-tense flashbacks. I ignored the tense and counted “she says”, “it says”, and “mother said” as the same structure under “x said”.

The Period row consideres “no attribution” to be the end of the paragraph.

The Question Mark row looks at “answered x” and “x answered”.

So, roughly 1/3 of all dialog is tagged in this story, and out of 29 tags, 7 verbs were “said-isms” by the strict standard.

The takeaway is “said-isms” aren’t to be avoided at all costs. It’s a question of grammer, and every writer, editor, and publisher, (and of course reader) will have their own preference.

A more in-depth study would compare these kind of stats between writers and editors, and of course use a larger sample size than one story. This was an experiment to answer a question. If I have more free time, I may continue looking at this particular piece of the craft in other stories.


I am a genre writer from the Great Metropolitan Rain Forest.

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Posted in Isabel Yap, Tor.com, Word Crunching

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