Tag Archives: word choices

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!


#SaysTheEditor: Man Versus Person


This one’s been largely ignored, and I’m glad of it. It’s not worth the brouhaha over it. Leave the fuss over word choice to us editors and the rest of you educate yourself on what your attention is trying to be diverted from, okay?

But before you go read (and it’s a fascinating article, beautifully written, and well worth your time), let’s talk about a couple of words. PERSON. MAN.

Used in fiction as a broad brushstroke, there’s nothing wrong with these words. They serve very specific purposes. Calling someone a person is, IN FICTION, a way to almost dehumanize or diminish them. Like they are not worth the time or energy to determine if they are a man or a woman. They’re probably going to flit across the page, never to be seen again.

Or maybe the intent is to create something ambiguous. To help create an air of mystery. There’s a person in that shadow. If it’s a man, maybe he’s the bad guy. If it’s a woman, maybe she’s a victim. Or maybe he’s a cowering sort of man, his collar flipped up so he can bury his chin in it and try to hide his fear. Maybe the woman is a kick-ass heroine.

But we don’t know. We don’t know anything, other than there’s a presence.

And maybe we’re even wrong. Maybe it’s not a person. Maybe it’s Bigfoot, an alien, a vampire, a robot.

And think about calling someone a man. There’s an immediate mental image there: chest hair, developed pecs, probably short hair on his head, a square jaw, broad hands, deep voice, muscles… I don’t need to tell you guys all the things that people in general conjure up when the word MAN comes into play. (And yes, I’ve quite probably been reading too many romances again, so send me some manuscripts that AREN’T romance for a bit, okay? Although if you’ve got a romance, clearly, I’m primed and ready, so send me that, too.)

So. Broad brushstrokes. They are helpful things. They cue the reader to subtexts and mental images. And even if those broad brushstrokes are then proven wrong later on — the person was, indeed, Bigfoot (hey, I’d like to read that one, so get busy!), or the man had a soft body, a flabby belly, a bad combover of four really long dark strands across an otherwise bald head — we at least have a place to begin from.

In fiction, those beginning places are necessary.

But in real life?

Well… hard to say. Oh, there are still suppositions that can be drawn with each term. And that’s where the political correctness comes in.

Because, let’s face it: phrases like “Man up” and “Throw/run/jump like a girl” and all the rest carry an awful lot of baggage. Negative baggage. And we’re in an era where many are struggling to erase that negativity. Where “throw like a girl” can be a compliment.* Where maybe “Be a man” means acting in ways that go contrary to a person’s (ha) nature.

We can argue the merit of eradicating these phrases until the sun comes up three days from now and we all drop over from exhaustion. I’m not interested in arguing. I’m interested in how we use words and what they say about us, about our view of each other, about the pictures we paint when we speak.

In the case of Man versus Person I’m actually referring to, and the article that accompanies it, there really isn’t a difference. The person chosen wasn’t chosen because of gender. The choice was made because of newsworthiness. Man or woman. Hell, one year, it was the entire planet.

I would argue here that gender truly doesn’t matter. You’re the person of the year — which is possibly better than being planet of the year. Doesn’t matter if you’re man enough, or if you throw like a girl. What matters is that the world was talking about you.

Like always, stop and think about your words. About the words of others. Is the argument justified? Does being a man mean a guy can’t cry? Does being girly really mean dolls and pink and lace?

Is the Man of the Year any sort of improvement over Person of the Year?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think that insisting we all use the gender-based language instead of the more generic term does exactly the opposite — it implies that there’s competition out there. You’re the Man of the Year. So bring on the Woman of the Year. The Athlete of the Year. The Rocket Scientist of the Year. Entertainer of the Year. Politician of the Year. Businessman of the Year. BusinessWOMAN of the year.

Move over, baby, because these categories can go on forever. And maybe, just maybe, one of them might be better than you.

(Forgive me if I lobby hard for my own choice of Doctor of the Year. I bet you long-time readers will know who I’d choose time and again to bestow that one on.)

Men versus person. I’ll let you decide.

*Old picture picked pretty randomly, awesome shot