In an effort to push students to write more descriptively, many language arts teachers have adopted the practice of barring the use of certain commonplace words in compositions, according to an amusing piece in the Wall Street Journal this week.
Frequently banned words include such standard-bearers as “good,” “bad,” “fun,” and “said.” From the piece:
We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull. “There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009. Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”
According to the article, some teachers have developed their own quite extensive lists of so-called dead or restricted common words—one 7th grade teacher in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., is rumored to have 40 words on hers.
While the goal is simply to get students to write more expressively and with more emotion (a spokesperson from the Mt. Lebanon district called it a “lighthearted project”), the results can be awkward—not to say cringe-worthy. The WSJ piece cites the example of a student replacing the word “big” with “anti-microscopic” and another of a student amending an Ernest Hemingway description of cars “going very fast” to “going at a superior speed.” (It’s not hard to imagine what Papa would have thought of that change.)
While the pedagogical origin of the dead-words trend is not entirely clear (apart from teachers’ ever-present need to push students to write with more verve), it’s likely that Shelton’s steadily selling book has been a key driver. Though not mentioned in the WSJ piece, the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on heightened vocabulary and “sensory language” probably hasn’t hurt the movement, either.
But not all teachers are on the bandwagon (whether or not it’s going at a “superior speed”). The WSJ cites one 5th grade educator who says she abandoned her dead-words list after she realized that “kids were just randomly selecting words, picking the ones they ‘thought sounded the coolest’ and not thinking about their piece in particular.” Another teacher notes that the words on dead-word lists are in fact not dead in the least as far as everyday use goes and are sometimes the best way to say something.
Meanwhile, in a near-anguished response, Slate Senior Editor Gabriel Roth bemoans the instructional trend, charging (though without much hard evidence) that it’s partly responsible for manuscript slush piles and self-published memoirs that are filled with bad writing (and, in particular, needlessly cumbersome synonyms for “said”). He writes:
Defenders of these restricted-word lists might argue that they’re an intermediate step for writers-in-training: First we’ll teach students to vary their vocabulary, and then to modulate their tone appropriately. The problem is that, on the evidence of all those slush piles, step two never takes place, and Shelton’s students go out into the world commanding and boasting and suggesting in the belief that they’re making their writing ‘more sophisticated’ rather than less.”
Perhaps the moral of the story is that, as in most things, a balanced approach is best. Student writers do need to experiment with language but maybe, for example, teachers could try supplementing Shelton’s manual with something like the late crime novelist Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing,” which includes, at number three:
Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
And then there’s his koan-like overarching dictum, perhaps best introduced at the high school level:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.