A middle grades teacher in California is insisting her students no longer use “said,” and instead use words like “uttered,” “expressed,” “recited,” and “spewed,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.
That teacher, Leilen Shelton, has also written a book, Banishing Boring Words, purchased, presumably, by people who don’t write for a living.
Shelton’s idea, that overused, general words should be replaced by specific, less used words, is a good one some of the time. But she takes it too far.
“Said,” for example is a word as inconspicuous as “a” or “the” which makes “said” the perfect word to use when someone speaks. Almost any other word focuses on how the person speaks, not on what the person says. And what is usually more important—the message or the way the message is delivered?
Shelton’s goal, to force kids to search for descriptive, specific vocabulary, is good. But sometimes the perfect word is a plain old English word.
For example, if a student is writing dialog, the dialog should sound like real people talking. Real people use words like “make,” “take,” “get,” and “go,” not “construct,” “procure,” “possess” and “perambulate.”
The context in which a word is used must be considered by a writer. So must be the audience. Simpler vocabulary words are easier to understand and attract a wider audience.
With my own students, I insist they locate the verbs in their writing and consider if they should be changed. But the replacement words I suggest are words that children know and have heard their parents or friends use. If a student writes, “We got there,” I ask him to consider “we arrived,” but not “we achieved our destination.”
With vocabulary selection, the biggest problem I see is usage, especially among ESL students. A student clicks online for a synonym and chooses any word, the longer the better. But not all synonyms are perfect fits, and sometimes the word a student chooses sounds ridiculous. I recommend students use a dictionary which explains usage and subtle differences in meaning, like the American Heritage Dictionary.
The times must also be considered. Words that Jefferson and Lincoln considered everyday words or at least well know words are not well known today. Students may not be aware that a word is old-fashioned or archaic and use it just because it is on a list.
Ms. Shelton’s goal is good, but her approach lacks common sense.