It’s the start of a new term in journalism courses across the country, and journalism lecturers will once again be spending the first few weeks helping students to ‘unlearn’ a habit they acquire at school: the impulse to use multiple synonyms instead of the word “said”*.
It’s not their fault. At school pupils are encouraged to extend their vocabulary when writing. Using “said” repetitively is seen as limited or uncreative, and pupils are told to find other words to add variety. “Stated”, “uttered”, and “commented” are just three words that journalism tutors will be striking out in the coming weeks.
But these synonyms are rarely used in journalism. To find out just how rarely they are used — and what the exceptions are — I looked at a sample of the 10 most recent news stories from three outlets: the BBC, Daily Mail/MailOnline, and BuzzFeed (30 in total).
Here’s what I found — plus a little explanation of why we do this.
‘Said’, ‘told’ or ‘added’ — stick to those three
When quoting direct speech reporters used “said” (or its variants ‘says’ and ‘saying’) two-thirds of the time.
It is easily the most commonly used form of attribution. One BuzzFeed article used “said” an incredible 34 times. But it’s so invisible you don’t notice.
The second most often used term was “told“, which was used for 11% of quotes. “Told” was used in two specific situations:
- Where the news organisation wanted to emphasise their own exclusive newsgathering (for example: “She told MailOnline” or “told the Sunday Politics“) and
- Where they needed to make it clear that the person was speaking to another publication (“told Mirror Online”) or to someone else (“the prince told the audience”).
Notice, by the way, that the reporter is still invisible with ‘told’ — witnesses “told” the publication/programme, not the reporter.
Third was “added“, which was used invariably to continue the second part of a quote that had already been introduced with “said”.
Those three attributions, then — said, added, and told — account for almost 90% of all reported speech. When quoting someone in a news report, then, the rules are pretty clear:
- Use “said” – unless you are quoting from another publication, a public speech (they ‘told the audience’), or want to emphasise the exclusivity of a source (they ‘told Mywebsite.com’).
- Use “added” if your quote runs into a subsequent line and you are breaking it up
But what about the other cases..?
The rise of reported speech via social media
Once you get past the ‘big three’, there is a handful of uses of “declared”, “called”, “wrote” and “tweeted“.
These tend to be used when quoting from social media updates: 3 of the 5 uses of “declared” and “called”, for example, come from the BuzzFeed article ‘Here’s How NFL Players Are Reacting To Trump’s “Son Of A Bitch” Comment‘ (also the only use of “wondered” or “asked“).
2 of the 4 uses of “tweeted” came from a BBC story on traffic delays: one quoting Highways England’s warning to drivers, and one quoting reaction from a driver.
Other attributions are only used with partial quotes
Almost all the other attributions are used only once, and invariably these are used not with full quotes, but where a single word or phrase is quoted. Here are some examples:
The 53-year-old, from Manchester, described it as “chaos” and said: “We are walking up the hard shoulder, people here are driving up the hard shoulder.” (BBC)
After shaking hands, Harry thanked him and described the reaction to Invictus in Canada as ‘absolutely amazing.’ (MailOnline)
On Friday, Theresa May made suggestions including a two-year transition period after Brexit, and that the UK pay the EU for “commitments” previously made. (BBC)
Fiona Macrae, from Travel Insurance Explained, advised customers to spend more on travel insurance so policies covered claims for cancellations ‘beyond reasonable control’. (MailOnline)
So why do journalists stick to “said”?
So why can’t we show off our vocabulary as journalists, and use every variety of ‘said’ we can think of? There are two main reasons:
- Firstly, when it comes to quoting what someone has said, journalists are trained to be extra careful not to inject subjectivity into their reporting: even a word like “claimed” suggests that we as the reporter are implying it is not true (rather than providing facts to that effect — see below).
- Secondly, journalists are encouraged to ‘stay out of the story‘ when reporting, and present the facts clearly. Adding language that draws attention to the journalist – whether their vocabulary or their perception of the speaker’s intention or emotional state – obstructs the reader’s view of the story. Even apparently innocuous alternatives like “stated” can feel clunky and overly formal when compared to the invisible “said”.
What about when we do believe that there is some doubt over what someone has said? In those situations we are supposed to present any basis for that — it might be quoting someone else challenging or contradicting it, or through including facts that do so.
Likewise, when it comes to a speaker’s tone of voice we tend to use additional factual description — “straining to be heard, he said”, “speaking quietly, he said” — as a preferable alternative to more literary synonyms like “shouted”, “whispered”, and so on, which risk breaking the ‘fourth wall‘ of an effaced narrator and a factual narrative.
Put another way, Journalism isn’t about demonstrating your vocabulary or what you think about a story — it’s about communicating the facts clearly with an audience (who may not share your vocabulary). “Said” is easily the most effective way of doing this.
*UPDATE (May 2020): I’ve since learned that there is a term for this in writing: “said bookism“, where “The writer goes out of their way to avoid the word “said”. [It is] often considered lazy writing by readers and critics who want dialogue to speak for itself without the use of fancy tags to carry its meaning and intention for it; in many cases, the dialogue tags effectively repeat what the dialogue is already telling us.“