Spluttering, cackling and drawling: verbs to use instead of ‘say’

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

black-and-white photograph of a young woman with her head tipped back and mouth open as though laughing or shouting, with brightly coloured abstract shapes coming from her mouth to represent speech
Tara Moore / DigitalVision / GettyImages

by Liz Walter

This post looks at ways of conveying personality or emotions by choosing a more interesting verb than ‘say’ when you report someone’s speech. Anyone who has been on a creative writing course will be familiar with the maxim ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and choosing a specific synonym for ‘say’ can help you to do this.

For instance, instead of saying directly that someone is angry, a reporting verb such as bellow or bawl clearly conveys the same idea:

‘Get back inside right now!’ he bellowed.

She bawled at us to get out of the way.

Other verbs for shouting loudly are shriek and screech. Both indicate a high degree of emotion. If they are used on their own, they usually indicate shock or anger, but they can also be used for positive emotions where this is specified:

‘Ow!’ she shrieked. ‘The dog bit me!’

He fell over and we all screeched with laughter.

If you want to show that someone is upset or in pain, you could choose a verb such as howl or wail. These both imply loud noises, whereas groan and moan indicate lower, softer sounds and whimper is soft but higher-pitched:

‘You trod on my toe,’ she howled.

‘I think my leg is broken,’ he groaned.

‘My head hurts,’ she whimpered.

A good verb for showing that someone is shocked is splutter, while burst out often shows that someone cannot control their emotions:

‘That’s outrageous!’ he spluttered.

‘I don’t trust them!’ she burst out angrily.

People who drawl speak slowly but unclearly, with long vowel sounds. This is a good verb to indicate laziness or arrogance. Another verb for unclear speech is slur, which often implies that someone is drunk:

‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘I’m surprised to see you here again.’

‘Take me home,’ she slurred.

If you mumble, your words are quiet and difficult to understand. Mutter is similar, but is usually used to indicate anger or worry, while murmur is softer and usually used in positive situations:

She mumbled something about having lost track of the time.

‘They’re not meant to be here,’ he muttered.

‘I love you so much,’ she murmured.

If you want to show that someone is speaking quickly and indistinctly, often through excitement or fear, you could use the verbs gabble, babble or jabber:

‘I promise I’ll never do it again,’ he gabbled.

She spends all day jabbering on the phone.

If you have found this post useful, look out for the next one, which is on the same subject, but focuses specifically  on using animal noise verbs to show human personality and emotion.

13 thoughts on “Spluttering, cackling and drawling: verbs to use instead of ‘say’

    1. Liz Walter

      Oh no – well spotted! I ended up moving ‘cackle’ into my next post, because it means to make a noise like a chicken. Look out for it next time!

  1. Pranita

    Though more and more getting Indian terms are getting added to the English language.

    The difference between native and non native speakers will be there.

    AI speech is most of the times Jarring. Earlier I preferred listening to articles but now if the speech is a torture, I leave it.

    The good websites have good content speakers/voice artists.

    Cambridge people must switch to native Indian for pronunciation of Indian words.
    The pronunciation will be authentic then.

    1. I agree, Pranita!

      Love all the Hindi and Urdu [though Urdu is really Pakistan, isn’t it?] words which are being added; not to mention all the south and west and northern Indian languages which are considered official.

      Perhaps AI is not being trained enough on various Indic accents and tones?

      One could probably tell that on a call centre or a telephone.

      Tell me about some of these great websites.

      So if I was using the Cambridge Dictionary for a word like “wallah” or “verandah”.

      Hindi has now become a priority language for Australian secondary and tertiary students along with Mandarin; Japanese and Indonesian.

      And many of us pick up other Indic languages and subcontinental tongues through the movies.

      That includes Nepali where a great many immigrants are coming from.

  2. Naomi Rankin

    This is astoundingly bad advice. Do you want to convey character like Jane Austen or do you want to write Hardy Boy books? What the character says, the actual words they use, should convey the meaning and the feeling and the personality. If it does not you need to improve the dialogue, not try to prop up lifeless utterances with sputters, cackles and drawls.

    1. Thanks, Naomi!

      A lot of your comments have been said by English – specifically rhetoric and composition – professors through the last 40 and 50 years.

      Hardy Boys are a great example of literary collaboration and writing to rule/to order [as with Tom Swift and Nancy Drew and many works from Strathmeyer Syndicate].

      Body language also conveys meaning and personality – whether conscious or not.

      And, so, yes, does tone and volume of the voice.

      How would you have people know the character if there WEREN’T any dialogue tags?

      [as happens in lots of plays and short stories – or where words are treated as a premium].

      In children’s literature this is also reflected through judicious use of illustration – and often can enhance the author’s and publisher’s choices.

      Austen used much of her training in drama and entertainment to make her great works [and her juvenilia and her last book SANDITON which is now a TV series].

      Popular and genre fiction have their skills and their conveyances as well which are every bit as demanding – sometimes more demanding – than Jane Austen.

      In the 21st century she would be considered a category romance author. Like Julia Quinn who writes the BRIDGERTON series.

  3. The people I know bawl when they are sad.

    And sometimes they are known to howl.

    Shriek and screech – a lot of distress or fuss.

    And slurs – in noun form – are often indicators that the thing you are going to say is insulting a group of people and dehumanising them.

    Great coverage of MUMBLE; MUTTER; MURMUR.

    And GABBLE and BABBLE.

    What is your favourite animal noise to convey emotion?

    Bleating covers aggrievance. [sheep or lamb]

    Braying sometimes arrogance or over-confidence. [donkey]

    Purr is joy and contentment.

    Bark can sometimes be irritable.

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