When describing speech in creative writing, it’s tempting to rely on simple verbs like “to say”, but while this can keep your text fairly neutral (and I would never advise consistently using different verbs just for variety’s sake), you may want a few alternatives to keep things interesting – and to add a bit more depth to described speech. The following article was a vocabulary building list that I produced for my English Lessons website, which seems pertinent to post here too. With, of course, some different examples. So if you’re looking for a range of different meanings and emotions when describing what someone is saying, try a few of these alternatives to the verb “to say”:
Simple and flexible, for questions. To ask is the most universal and neutral of a wide variety of verbs that we can use to frame questions, and is likely to be one of the most common speech-related verbs after “to say”.
“What is that sound?” she asked.
To respond is a very general verb that can be any response, verbal or non-verbal, but when we use it to describe speech it merely means that what was said was in reaction to something else.
They said it was getting dark. He responded “We can finish the fence without light.”
An answer generally followings a question or some kind of problem that needs to be resolved. Like respond, it must be in reaction to something, but it more specifically relates to questions.
“What is that you’re wearing?” her mother asked.
“A dress I found in the attic,” she answered.
A reply is a specific form of response, which again is used in reaction to something. It is less general than response as it suggests a verbal response (something using words). So while you may respond by nodding your head, but that would not typically be considered a reply.
“Are you eating in the restaurant?” the concierge asked.
“Yes, please set aside a table for me,” Linda replied.
A request is more specific than simply asking (which can relate to any issue/question); to request is to ask for something to be done or to be given – which could mean asking for an action, or to receive something. It is a fairly polite, formal verb.
I requested wine with my meal.
In contrast to request, demand is a forceful way to ask for something to be done or given, with aggression and possible authority.
“Tell me where you hid the necklace!” she demanded.
In creative writing, demand can be useful as a way to ask a question, as someone demands the answer, rather than merely asks for it.
To enquire is a polite verb for asking about information. (Not to be mixed up with inquire, which means to perform a formal investigation.)
“Where is this package going?” the postman enquired.
To suggest is to highlight something as a possibility, to introduce an idea – usually a solution to a problem.
“We should open a window to let the smell out,” Billy suggested.
To note normally shows something is said simply, factually – neutrally. It removes agency from what is said, for example to show something is being pointed out without any particular emotion. (And, similarly, you can use ‘to point out’ in the same way.)
“Ah, we took a wrong turn two miles ago,” he noted.
To interrupt is to say something that cuts off another speaker or action, so it used when someone starts speaking, for example, mid-sentence.
“All papers must be submitted by Friday-” the professor was saying.
“Excuse me,” the student interrupted, “But last week you said we had until Monday.”
Less abrupt than interrupting, interjecting offers additional information between points. It may or may not cut someone off, but it’s usually lighter, and more for positive comments (though of course it doesn’t have to be).
“We’re going to Peru,” Paul was explaining.
“On a plane!” his girlfriend interjected.
12. Reveal (divulge)
To reveal is to say something that offers new information, which is useful if you want to be dramatic. Like a number of verbs here, it does not necessarily relate to speech, but in the context of saying something, it is to provide new information. For a more formal, polite version, you could also use to divulge.
“I was the one who hid the vase,” she revealed suddenly.
An exclamation is something said suddenly and boldly, often in surprise. To exclaim is therefore useful as a shocked response, demonstrating a loud reaction.
He looked in the cupboard and stood back quickly, exclaiming “My coat is gone!”
14. Shout (yell)
To shout is to say something in a very loud voice, for instance the way football fans tend to communicate during a game. To yell is similar, but can seem slightly more extreme.
“Children aren’t allowed in here!” the guard shouted.
15. Scream (shriek)
A scream is like a shout, something at the top of the voice, but is more specifically high-pitched, and usually the result of some desperate fear. Shriek is an even more extreme version. Screams and shrieks are not necessarily verbal, but can be used with words.
“He’s got a gun!” she screamed.
16. Joke (laugh)
To joke is to say something in a light way, not to be taken seriously. We can also laugh to describe this kind of speaking, though it implies speech mixed with laughter.
“If it rains much longer, we’ll be able to go swimming!” he joked.
To claim, in speech, is to say something that the subject is presenting as true. Using a word like this suggests that there is some doubt about what is being said.
“This house was built in the 11th Century,” the guide claimed. He was lying.
To snap is to say something in a short, aggressive manner, usually as an angry response.
“I lost the ticket,” he claimed.
“Can’t you do anything right!” she snapped.
19. Mumble (murmur)
Mumbling is speaking in an unclear way, where words are not properly pronounced. This usually means when the speaker does not open their mouth properly, or speaks too quietly. An alternative is murmur, which refers more to speaking quietly.
“I’m ill,” Jim mumbled.
“What was that?” the teacher snapped.
“I said I’m ill!” Jim shouted.
To whisper is to speak very quietly, normally when you do not want to be heard.
The couple crept through the tunnel. The floorboards squeaked. Fred whispered, “Stop moving. They’ll hear us coming.”
21. Complain (grumble)
To complain is to disagree or express disappointment with something, so is usually used in a negative sense. Grumble may be used similarly in speech, to express a complaint made in an unclear (often miserable) way, like mumbling.
“You’ve given me the wrong cake,” the girl complained.
If you have any questions, or examples of more alternatives to the verb to say, do let me know in the comments below!