- Teachers actually do their jobs
- Language changes according to your purpose
- There is teacher-me and writer-me
I have heard a lot of authors complain that their English teacher taught them wrong. I can’t speak for your personal English teacher (who, for all I know, might have been the most useless person ever to stand in a classroom) but I can tell you why English teachers encourage you not to use the word ‘said’.
When you were at school
Adults often don’t remember what it was like to be learning English at school, the new words, the complicated sentences, the totally baffling stories they wrote… They judge their teachers’ advice on whether or not they agree with it now. They completely forget that, at some point in history, the words ‘called’ and ‘hollered’ were unfamiliar to them and they had to learn them.
Teachers who helped them to learn new words were doing their job, and it’s only from the lofty position of knowing all these words now that people can decide whether or not they are appropriate for their stories.
Not everyone wants to be a professional novelist (or creative writer of any description) and it’s unfair to think that all your English lessons should be tailored to those very specific needs. For the most part, people who want to write a novel have to learn the language to an appropriate degree first, and that is what their English teachers were there for. Honing skills specific to your form and genre comes after that.
Why teachers tell you not to write ‘said’
That is their job.
Your English teacher was not teaching you to write a novel, they were teaching you to write an exam answer.
We can get side-tracked here by pointing out how awful it is that teachers are teaching pupils to pass exams rather than expanding their horizons with the beauty of the English language, but we won’t. It is awful. I don’t agree with teaching only to pass exams. However, that is the reality of it. It is not your teacher’s fault. They have a job to do and they are told exactly what they need to teach. If you had fun lessons at school, that was probably your teacher sneaking them in under the radar.
Examiners have a check-list of things to look for. And, for the record, I have been a GCSE examiner (don’t get me started).
They look for things like:
- Relevant content (sticking to the form, audience and purpose of the task)
- A range of paragraphs
- A range of sentence structures
- A range of punctuation
- A range of vocabulary
You can see that having a range gets better marks. And so English teachers encourage pupils to use a range of vocabulary.
Repeatedly writing ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ doesn’t demonstrate a range of vocabulary. English teachers encourage pupils to use different words for ‘said’ because it is one of the easiest ways to do this.
Like most English teachers, I have lobbed thesauruses (not literally) at pupils and told them to find a different word (and, again, I’m not going to get distracted talking about how to use thesauruses, either – I may do that in another post). This is, firstly, to help develop a pupil’s vocabulary as they learn new words, and, secondly, to train them to use a variety of vocabulary in their work.
However, I will give very different advice depending what I am being asked, in what context and by whom.
If you are a GCSE pupil, asking my professional opinion as a qualified English teacher, then I will probably advise you to use a range of words such as bellowed, cried, whispered, etc. rather than just ‘said’.
If you are an aspiring writer (of any age), asking my opinion as a professional writer, then I will probably tell you that the simplest words are often the best. The word ‘said’ is simple, clear and doesn’t draw attention to itself. If you want people to focus on what was said, use that. If you want your reader to focus on how it was said, elaborate by using a different word.
My advice will change depending on who is asking and what they are trying to write. A great exam answer is very different from a great novel, which is different from a formal letter, which is different from a short story, which is different from narrative non-fiction, and so on.
You wouldn’t ask a prize-winning journalist to teach you about writing and then, at the end of the lesson, complain that they didn’t give you the best advice about writing novels. Of course they didn’t. They write articles. That’s what they were teaching you.
The same goes for English teachers. They’re showing you how to write exam answers.
A little story
One of the Year 7s I taught got to see how my feedback changed depending on what I was reading and why.
Every week, I would collect in the books, mark the work and give feedback. And every week, I would give this particular Year 7 the same criticism. It went something like this: Use capital letters, for the love of mercy! Didn’t you learn this in Primary School? This is the very minimum you need for writing a sentence.
Or words to that effect.
For those of you who are worried about my level of feedback, this was not the only thing I wrote.
This same pupil was writing a novel. An actual novel that he hoped to get published some day in the future.
I love that enthusiasm. I love that he loved writing. I love that he spent the time actually writing it. And, with that in mind, when he came into the classroom each week, he would hand me a memory stick and I would read the next chapter of his book.
Every week, I handed it back with a massive smile and lavished praise upon this Year 7 who apparently refused to use capital letters. Why? Because his book was amazing. It was imaginative and funny and I absolutely enjoyed reading it.
Every week, I would mark his work as a teacher and give feedback that would help him get to where he needed (passing his exams). And also every week, I would read his novel as a person and give him the feedback he needed to get to where he wanted to be (the encouragement to keep writing, practise, and follow his dreams).
If he had asked me to mark his novel as a teacher, I would have had to point out the grammatical errors, correct his sentence structure a bit and moan about his sporadic capital letters. But there is so much that goes into a novel, and the least of those (certainly when you’re eleven) is perfect grammar. As long as it made sense, was clear, progressed the story, made me laugh and kept me hooked, that was a successful novel.
Teachers have been telling pupils to use a variety of words, instead of only using ‘said’ because it is a well-known, legitimate and easy way for that pupil to demonstrate the skills they need to pass their exams. Any tips that teachers can give their pupils to give them a better chance in their exams should be given.
I can talk to you about writing as teacher-me, or I can talk to you about writing as writer-me. I will have very different things to say, depending upon which hat I am wearing.