Tag Archives: word choice

Says the Editor: Are you Asking me or Telling me?


So my post last week spawned some questions.

The first was about the word ASK. When do you use it, and when do you use SAID?

The author asking that is a writer of wonderful romances and women’s fiction. Her books resonate. They’re best-sellers. They win awards. And yet… she’s brave enough to ask this.

Yay for brave authors who are always striving to improve their craft!

I’ve stalled long enough, haven’t I? I’m not stalling because the answer’s not easy. It actually is relatively easy, for fiction — because you’ll notice that near the end of this, part of my answer is going to be all about context and nuance — but of course there’s a BUT. And this BUT is the tough spot. It’s a current belief that you should never use ASK and always use SAID.

I disagree. Here’s why, and it’s pretty simple.

Webster’s defines ASK as:

Definition of ask
asked play \ˈas(k)t, ˈäs(k)t, ˈask; dialectal ˈakst\; asking
transitive verb
1 a : to call on for an answer

She asked him about his trip.

b : to put a question about

asking her opinion

c : speak, utter

ask a question

2 a : to make a request of

She asked her teacher for help.

b : to make a request for

She asked help from her teacher.

3 : to call for : require

a challenge that will ask much of us

4 : to set as a price

asked $3000 for the car

5 : invite

She asked a few friends to the party.

intransitive verb
1 : to seek information

ask for her address

2 : to make a request

asked for food

Almost all of these definitions involve an inquiry (yes, even an asking price!). Therefore, ASK. ASK is the word of inquiries. And while Webster’s doesn’t specifically mention dialogue, it comes close with that top definition. To call on for an answer; to put a question about; to speak, utter. Those all require ASK.

Let’s bring it to dialogue:
To call on for an answer: “Jane, do you know the answer?” the teacher asked.
To put a question about: “Jane, what is your opinion?” the teacher asked.
To speak, utter: “Jane, am I asking you a question?” the teacher asked.

Notice what these sentences all have in common?


Question mark.

That’s a tell-tale sign that you should ASK instead of use the more generic SAID.

But what about when the question comes at the start of the dialogue, and declarative sentences follow it?

Now you’re seeing what I meant by context. Look:

“Jane, do you know the answer. It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over, and I know you know it,” the teacher said.

She’s buried the question in front of a bunch of simple declarations. The question isn’t lingering; our focus as readers has moved on to the teacher’s repetition. Maybe the teacher’s prompting here, but she could also be a bit irritated. (As an aside: this is also where you want to be careful with your dialogue tag. You might be tempted to use prompted and tell the reader how the teacher is speaking. Or you might be tempted to use an adverb: the teacher said snappishly, again telling us what’s going on rather than SHOWING. But we’ll get into detail about adverbs in our next post.)

Back to the issue at hand. Look at this example.
“Jane, do you know the answer? It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over and I know you know it. C’mon, Jane, please show me you know,” the teacher asked.

That’s because this final statement is a request. Or, to think of it more organically, if the teacher is prompting, which she seems to be, it’s not a stretch for the reader to imagine the inflection rising at the end of this comment, as if she’s letting an unspoken question hang in the air.

And that’s your difference: is there an unspoken question hanging in the air? Does the speaker’s inflection rise at the end in the classic speech pattern of a question? If so, use ASK.

So… are you WRONG if you prefer SAID over ASK?

No, not technically, because SAID is a catch-all. But yes, I think it does affect the way a reader interacts with the text. I think a reader who doesn’t see ASK in the tag is less likely to mentally add that inflection, and that removes a layer of texture to the narrative. ASK is an easy way to reinforce to the reader that a question is being posed. And like its friend SAID, it often becomes unobstrusive in the prose, there as a cue to the reader in how to interpret the words being spoken, not calling attention to itself while doing an important job.

Because let’s face it: if you have Mikey over here who is incapable of phrasing anything as a question, whose delivery is always flat and devoid of emotion, don’t you have a hard time understanding when Wouldn’t that be fun? is a question and when it’s a rhetorical device, or even sarcasm?

I sure would.

And that’s why I like ASK. It’s got a good friend in SAID, but it adds just a bit more oomph and helps the reader interpret the text.

Let me know what questions this spawns… I’ll keep answering if you keep asking!


Says the Editor: Verb? Adjective?


Is it a verb? Is it an adjective? No! This is a picture!

Seriously, though…

I had an interesting experience I wanted to pass along, because it’s about worldview, and it’s about word choice, and it’s about how every person brings something different to a piece and to the use of language, itself.

You see, I have a short story. I’ll be telling you more about this short story in the near future, but for now, let me say that I wrote a short story and I’m working with an editor on it. Yes, even editors use editors! (That’s because we understand the value of a second set of eyes, and we understand that it’s money well spent, and we understand how a fresh perspective (dare I say worldview can help us produce the best book — or in this case, short story — possible.)

And I used this phrase: At last, we quiet.

Or something like that. 😉

And my editor wanted me to change it to At last, we quieted.

So I took a look. Because I brought her on board to help me, right? And… I realized that the piece is in present tense, which is kind of rare for me but there it is, and approving her change means… a tense change right in the middle of the piece.

I pointed that out to her. She looked it over, thought about it, agreed, but said something about the phrase still bothered her.

I took another look, both at her request and because, frankly, I was intrigued.

And it hit me. She didn’t like that I was using quiet as a verb. So I changed it to an adjective by adding a verb in there and we were both happy.

It was a few hours later that it hit me what a brilliant change that wound up being. It’s one of those small, subtle changes that no one will ever be aware of (although now that I’m pointing it out to you, you might), but it’s a verb that echoes back to the genesis of the story, the action that sets the character on the path that leads us to the point where she finally quiets.

But hopefully — and this is what really good writing does — that one small word change, that one insertion, will give the reader a more complete reading experience, will heighten the emotion even if they don’t know the hows or whys they got there. That the reader will come away with a bit of extra satisfaction that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

This is why we use editors, friends. I sent her the best story possible. She helped me make it better.

More to come about it, so stay tuned.


Lazy Dazy: All About Language #atozchallenge


Well, not ALL about language, or we’d be here through the next couple of A to Z Challenges, and this puppy only happens once a year.

Today, we’re going to focus on lazy language. On what happens when you slap words on a page and don’t think much of it.

Honestly? Not much. I’m one of the few who will call a person out for using lazy language, and certainly, my clients come to me for a line or content edit hoping I’ll do exactly that. So, you know, since you’re paying me, I’m more than glad to…

Seriously. This is actually one of my newest and biggest pet peeves. It’s a certain construction: to where, from where — it makes me scream.

It’s lazy.

Pure and simple. It’s lazy.

And you, as an author, can do so much better.

Like this: She walked to where he waited near the water fountain.

Seriously. I see this stuff all the time, not only from my clients (who often wind up having it challenged out of them) but from books I read for pleasure. Not a lot of pleasure when it’s the same as dragging fingernails down a chalkboard.

Try this instead: He was waiting near the water fountain. She joined him.
Or even: She joined him at the water fountain.

(Whoa! I got rid of another poor language choice: she walked— that’s one that you can usually let your reader infer for themselves. Believe it or not, they will.)

He looked near where the sailboats sat. Beside them was where the mugging had taken place.

How about: He gazed across the marina. Right there. Beside the sailboats. The mugging had taken place right there.

And look at that: snappier language. Better cadence. You know that spot’s important, and that those pesky sailboats were somehow important and we’ll be hearing from them again. Do you get all that from the first example?

That’s why I call this lazy. Sure, we talk that way. Even I do, and I have no issues admitting it.

But speech and writing are different creatures, and it’s worth going that extra mile to get rid of the lazy stuff and replace it with something smarter, more precise, snappier. Not to say that it always has to be snappier, but it should always be more precise. After all, you only have so many words to work with, even when you’re going to self-publish and that means the word count is 100% up to you.

It’s a question of bloat. Of making your language work for you, not against you (which bloated language does).

So before you send me your manuscript, take a few minutes. Do a search for to where, near where, from where. See if you can change them.*

If not, be prepared for an awful lot of comments.

*Sometimes, you need the to where, near where, from where construction. SOMEtimes. Not all the time. Not on every page (Best-selling romance author, I’m looking at you). SOME is fine. Usually.