Does the Secretary Of State "Snap?"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009
One of the earliest things I learned in journalism is to use "said" as often as possible, let the quotes -- not your colorful verbs--speak for themselves.

This, of course, goes against all those writing classes in elementary school when you brainstorm more interesting, more descriptive words to replace said: Yelled, whispered, cried, mumbled, shouted, proclaimed, explained.

There are, of course, legit reasons to use words other than said, "asked" and "replied" are obvious ones.

The more descriptive ones have their place too: usually in human interest stories.

""The explosion ripped the Humvee in half," whispered Lance Cpl. Jan Friis, 22, of Bethesda, whose best friend, Lance Cpl. Jeremy S. Lasher, was killed when a bomb blew to pieces the vehicle he was driving."
I believe that the reporter could tell he whispered. No judgment only an expression of disbelief or sadness, an efficient use of words.

Or this, which is recounting what someone else heard:

Helen Ingram, 53, said she was reading her Bible in her apartment when she heard what sounded like 10 or 12 gunshots. She peered into the darkness and saw two women. One yelled, "I got hit!" and the other screamed, "I can't feel my back!" Ingram said.
But here's the thing, in the last two months (which is as far back as the Post Web site lets me search with minimal effort) the word "snapped" was used only once to describe the way someone talked:
Another student asked Clinton what her husband, the former president, thought of growing Chinese investment in Congo.
"My husband is not secretary of state. I am!" Clinton snapped.
That's the Post version. Here's the AP version:
"She abruptly reclaimed the stage for herself.
"My husband is not secretary of state, I am," she snapped. "I am not going to be channeling my husband.""
Ok, so two reporters thought she snapped. The New York Times thought she "bristled".

All of these things seem like unnecessary descriptors. I think readers would get that she was annoyed even if the reporters wrote, "said."

And for good measure, here's what the Associated Press Stylebook has to say about exclamation marks:

EMPHATIC EXPRESSIONS: Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity, or other strong emotion.
AVOID OVERUSE: Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period.

Here's the thing, It's kind of hard to exclaim a whole sentence. And since the AP didn't feel the need for the exclamation mark, I'm not sure why the Post did, and I certainly don't know what the Post needed the exclamation mark and the "snapped." Maybe the paper just needs copy editors.

On a related note, the Washington Post's coverage of the rapes in Eastern Congo has been incredible and heartbreaking.

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