Yes, You Can Hiss Without Sibilance

This is for you writers and copy-editors out there, since I see it pop up from time to time on YE OLDE TWITTERS, so here is my opinion as a writer (though most certainly not an editor) —

Yes, goddamnit, you can jolly well “hiss” something without there being a sibilant sound (i.e. an “s-sound”) associated with it.

If you’re a copy-editor who unswervingly believes this, that’s nice, but weird, and you should maybe uncurl your pale, bloodless fingers from the idea for five minutes to hear my take on it. And put down that red pen. I know you want to stab me with it.

So. Hiss.

Some copy-editors say that to hiss something, a character must be hissing something with the letter S in it, as in, “I STUDIOUSLY ASSERTED MY DISSERTATION ON THE SUBJECT OF ASSONANCE IN THE SONG STYLINGS OF PHIL COLLINS’ SUSSUDIO, STEVEN,” Mary hissed.

But, is that accurate?


Let’s assume that Merriam-Webster is a fair authority, yeah?

Go to their definition of hiss, please.

You will note that their definitions include:

1to express disapproval of by hissing

2to utter or whisper angrily or threateningly and with a hiss

Just in case we’re not clear, let’s look at their sample sentences, one of which is:

‘“Leave me alone!” he hissed.’

See? It’s okay. Some people get caught up in the literal definition where it requires sibilance — but even there, you’re in tricky territory, because writing fiction is not like writing a fucking software manual. Not everything has to be literal. If I say someone growled something, they don’t first have to be a wolf or a fucking Yeti to do that. When I say, “We dug up new information,” it doesn’t require a literal shovel, nor is a backhoe required when I say, “She dug the idea.” We all understand she liked the idea, not that she had to excavate it physically. And when we say that someone hissed something, we do not explicitly require them to have snakily-sibilantly-hissed it at them. Because language is a fucking playground and we can have some fun with it. We can attempt to evoke with metaphorical or phrasal verbs. Language is fluid. It shifts and changes. So must our expectations of it.

Now, of course, the caveat to that, dear writers, is you need to calm down a little, too. Everything can’t be HISSED GROWLED SNARLED SPAT EJACULATED. Dialogue tags are best when minimal. Evocative language is at its greatest effect when used sparingly. It’s not a machine gun, you don’t need to chew up scenery with it.

Though, hey, maybe that’s your style, I dunno.

Point is then to know what is your style, your voice, and what is not. You shouldn’t rely on bad writing or error-filled prose by calling it your ‘style,’ but you also can’t lean too heavily on technically perfect writing, because technically perfect writing is bland as unpainted drywall.

Increasingly, as I deepen this writing career of mine, I have learned more and more to cultivate the intuition necessary to know what darlings must be killed…

…but also, what hills you gotta die on.

Anyway! All this is just my opinion, and you are free to discard it.

But I say, writers, use hiss, use it sparingly, and use it even without sibilance.

And copy-editors, it’s good to check our shit, thank you, you do the good work — but on this one, maybe relax just a little tiny itty-bitty bit. Because I’m gonna stet the shit out of it anyway.

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24 responses to “Yes, You Can Hiss Without Sibilance”

  1. Hiss = angry whisper. At least, that’s how I see it “poetically.”

    But the actual definition of Hiss:

    “1. make a sharp *sibilant* sound as of the letter s.”

    …so, while your copy editors are technically correct, they’re also being overly prescriptivist.

    I’m on your side on thissssssss one.

  2. This is my dictionary’s definition of the verb hiss:

    make a sharp sibilant sound as of the letter s.
    “the escaping gas was now hissing”
    synonyms: fizz, fizzle, whistle, wheeze; rare sibilate
    “the escaping gas hissed”

    I’m going to keep flagging “hiss” as requiring at least one S sound. And if my clients ignore my flag, well, that’s okay, because it’s their book, not mine. I don’t think anyone needs to agree on everything either. Different opinions make the world tastier. 🙂

  3. I agree with the part about using too many dialogue tags. There’s usually no reason to use any besides ‘ejaculated’. It was good enough for Franklin W. Dixon, so it’s good enough for you.

    • Just what I was thinking! It’s more of a k-k-k-k-k sound. Source: I was raised by cats and this sound is still part of my vocabulary (though happily I don’t get irritated enough to use it very often).

  4. Are you kidding me?! ThankSSS for the headSSS-up: I may cross paths with a future editor who’s gonna get a not-sufficiently-sibilant earful from my characters whose hisses say more about their frame of mind than position of tongue.
    And there’s no logic to the objection anyway: so what if a single “s” satisfies their superior censure? What about all the other consonants? No utterance apart from “sssssss” should satisfy those genuinely bent on stick-up-the-a$$ literalism.

  5. I love ‘hissed’—it brings feline connotations to my mind, as I always picture my cat hissing and spitting angrily whenever the vet tried to shove a de-worming tablet down his throat using one of those tablet-down-throat tools (pretty sure that’s the technical term).

    But I’m with you on dialogue tags. I think it can be tempting, especially for inexperienced writers, to take the ol’ “don’t over-do the he said/she said” advice imparted poorly by too many English teachers, as a carte blanche for inventively replacing every instance of he said/she said with an evocative action or (worse?) “he said/she said ADVERBINGLY”. I can’t quite decide whether the multitude of spat/sighed/laughed/grinned/growled/simpered/chuckled/shouted/whispered dialogue or the adverbingly delivered dialogue is the biggest turn off for me, but it’s pretty close.

    • I’ll have you know that I just spent ten minutes in the bathroom hissing “Leave me alone!” at myself in the mirror, and now the children think I’m deranged.
      But yeah, you can totally do it. Think about a cat hissing. They don’t actually go ssss when they hiss; their mouths are wide open.

  6. Whenever anyone tells me you [i]need[/i] an S sound for it to be a hiss, I have just one word for them:

    Those walking nightmare erections from the Alien franchise gave the most terrifying hisses with and without an S sound.

  7. Nice post. I agree that it’s important to find your unique style, and hone it. One’s style does not-or should not– include sloppy and/or lazy writing. But don’t strive for perfection, either. Very good stuff, indeed!

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