‘Do you want a muffit of tea?’ This expression – if you’re unfamiliar with it – can be heard in a short sketch by the Scottish comedian Brian Limond, aka Limmy, in series 2 of his brilliant Limmy’s Show:
Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.
Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had one for his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:
Australian English has a famous tendency to abbreviate words, doing so frequently and in a variety of ways. Clipping comes first, then the stump may be suffixed with an -er, -o, -s, -ie or -y, etc. This can and does occur in any form of English, but Australians seem to have taken diminutives furthest: it’s an unmistakable feature of the dialect.
Peter Temple’s Truth is an Australian crime novel with an abundance of such terms, and as I read it I decided to note some of them. The book, incidentally, is outstanding: the generic phrase crime novel utterly fails to capture this eloquent and ambitious morality tale. Anyway: to begin with -o forms. Truth offers several, usually in dialogue:
‘…get someone to take down every rego in the parking garage’ (registration, i.e., car number plate)
‘…years ago, you rings the cops, the ambos, they come.’ (
‘If my old man had been a garbo, I’d be labouring on a building site.’ (garbage collector)
‘And have the Salvos take a walk around there,’ said Villani. (Salvation Army)
‘Told you at the servo then, you don’t fucken listen.’ (service station, i.e., gas station or petrol station)
The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:
The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.
That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”
Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.
Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.
Take Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.
Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:
‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’
‘It was in the paper.’
‘What! How old did they say I was?’
She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’
I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?
It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.