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?

I SSSSSAY NAY, IT ISSSSS NOT.

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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