Is using hissed as a replacement for said technically acceptable in dialogue without the presence of any sibilants?

"You fool!" she hissed.

I understand that hissed could be used to indicate a certain tone, but I wonder if there's any documented grammatical argument that might make this unacceptable.

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    Interesting question. – Greg Lee Aug 31 '15 at 20:25
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    Thanks @GregLee. I haven't the slightest idea where I would being to find the answer myself. A precursory touch of google-fu lead me nowhere in a hurry. Hoping someone has some niche knowledge. – samuelesque Aug 31 '15 at 20:33
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    "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" sounds quite sinister when hissed. – Wayfaring Stranger Aug 31 '15 at 20:42
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    Without any sibilants, the line of dialogue would have to be "hithed." – Sven Yargs Aug 31 '15 at 21:51
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    I hissed 'you fool' under my breath so as not to distract my colleagues, and I sounded silly. – Jesvin Jose Sep 1 '15 at 6:29

The verb hissed has several definitions. Chief among them are:

  1. to make a long “s” sound like the sound that a snake makes
  2. to say something in a low angry voice
  3. if people in an audience hiss, they make a long “s” sound to show that they do not like a speaker or performer

All definitions from Macmillan, via OneLook.com.

Now, the fact that the sentence described as being hissed:

You fool!

(a) contains no sibilants (like the sound a snake makes), and (b) is not being performed in front of an audience, constrains the definition to "to say something in a low angry voice".

There's simply no other available definition which suits the context. Therefore, the definition of hissed being employed is #2; the sentence is fine.

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    If the story does not take place in an english-speaking setting (or at least that statement is understood to not be in english)), the written dialogue is obviously what they would have said if it was, though often limited by a specific characters understanding. So 1 and 3 may actually be possible here, we cannot say without knowing more about the context. ;-) – Deduplicator Sep 2 '15 at 13:48
  • Your point 'b' suggests that the hiss is issued by a performer to an audience, but the definition #3 rightly notes that hissing is an audience's disapproving utterance. – pilcrow Sep 2 '15 at 14:08

One of the definitions of hiss, per Merriam-Webster online:

  1. to say (something) in a loud or angry whisper

There is no mention of sibilants. Since whisper is certainly not limited to sibilants, either, it stands to reason that the act of hissing can include a phrase without sibilants.

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    +1 I have no idea why someone downvoted this answer. It seems entirely on point, and was posted a couple of minutes before Dan Bron's excellent answer, so it can hardly be accused of being a "me too" response. – Sven Yargs Aug 31 '15 at 21:56
  • In comments below Cole's answer, I told Dan Bron I would accept his comment as an answer if he submitted it. This is also on point. Upvoted. Exactly the obvious answer I was looking for. – samuelesque Aug 31 '15 at 22:15
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    @DanBron: Let the record show that I don't always know what I'm talking about. Your answer is the most thorough of the lot in any case—but I didn't like to see talrnu's answer getting bombed for unfathomable reasons. – Sven Yargs Aug 31 '15 at 23:31
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    It seems odd to me to take dictionary entries so seriously, as if they came from God. A person made up the MW entry -- probably a linguist of some sort. Was he right? Did he know more about the matter than you? What was his evidence? If I could get a dictionary published, would you believe every last little thing I said? – Greg Lee Sep 1 '15 at 3:27
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    @GregLee I trust MW by its wide acceptance, as a language is ultimately what most of its speakers say it is. If you can publish a dictionary with a contradictory definition for this word and achieve equivalent acceptance, then I'll revisit my answer. – talrnu Sep 1 '15 at 3:51

I don't think there can be any grammatical prohibition. We can say, "He kicked a dream" for example and it's meaningless but it's still grammatical.

If you think of someone saying those words it's easy enough to imagine them being sibilant. Try whispering the phrase then whisper it again with an excess of breath. Finally voice it and keep the strong whisper sound. It's impossible to describe accurately in text but it's certainly possible to do and gives an unmistakable impression of vehemence.

To see how other authors have used this in published books you might like to follow some of the links here Google ngram:he hissed,she hissed

  • This is pretty much exactly where I land on my own question, but I can see where a keen copy-editor might suggest otherwise. I'm wondering what kind of argument they may make against using my example above. At a glance I can't think of a more effective descriptor, or anything with a similar feeling. – samuelesque Aug 31 '15 at 20:58
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    You can say, 'she snapped' but frankly I don't see a problem with hissed. I'll add to my answer. – chasly from UK Aug 31 '15 at 21:04
  • He kicked a dream? Lovely metaphor! – leftaroundabout Sep 2 '15 at 13:23

Yes, it's perfectly acceptable to used hissed, spat, screamed, argued, yelled, screeched, roared, or any other word which describes the vocal patterns of a person in place of said.

It's commonly used in fiction and there's no rule which says every speech pattern must be followed by "Said." By using, hissed, you're telling readers that the person did in fact hiss that statement, rather than just said it.

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    It depends on what definition of hissed you are using. If you're simply using the denotative version meaning "make a sharp sibilant sound as of the letter <i>s</i>" no but there are other versions that make more sense, such as "whisper something in an urgent or angry way." Or even "express disapproval of (someone) by hissing." – Cole Aug 31 '15 at 20:53
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    the fact that the sentence described as being hissed contained no sibilants constrains the definition to "whisper something in an angry way". There's no other available definition which suits the context. Therefore, that is the definition of hissed he is using. – Dan Bron Aug 31 '15 at 20:58
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    @chaslyfromUK I can't picture "hello" or "ow" or "round" being hissed, though I can picture them being voiced in a breathy whisper. – Dan Bron Aug 31 '15 at 21:13
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    @Well no-one can picture a sound! ;-) Imagine a very loud breathy whisper - then add your voice back in. I don't think I can say much more. – chasly from UK Aug 31 '15 at 21:16
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    @dotsamuelswan As you like. Posted. – Dan Bron Aug 31 '15 at 21:23

Viewed narrowly, the question posits an association between hissing and sibilants. Is it possible, however, that fricatives (/f/, /th/) should be included, as well?

If so, then the /f/ of "fool" certainly qualifies to be hissed.

  • As a brief follow-up, people who recall the Warner Bros. cartoon character Daffy Duck will attest how he had a speech defect consisting of adding fricatives to all sibilants. He did indeed hiss the famous catchphrase, "You're desthpicable!" – Peter Sep 18 '15 at 22:26

This question is a matter of style, not grammar. There is no "technical" answer. I personally would recommend against using "hissed" without any sibilants, but no better word jumps instantly to my mind for this case. Good luck.


I don't know if this is helpful (and this is my first posting here, so be gentle with me) -- but in the novel and screenplay to "The Silence of the Lambs" Hannibal Lecter asks Clarice Starling what fellow inmate "Multiple Miggs" said to her as she passed the latter's cell on her way to interview Lecter in the asylum. Said Lecter (referring to Miggs), "He hissed at you" -- with Anthony Hopkins as Lecter delivering perfect emphasis on the word in question. And indeed that is how Miggs uttered his question, the nature of which I hesitate to quote in full due to its extreme vulgarity but suffice to say he hissed to Clarice that his olfactory powers afforded him an awareness of Clarice's ... "scent".

  • I believe the quote you're talking about contains the word "smell", leaving us with an 's' to hiss with. – samuelesque Sep 3 '15 at 13:57
  • You are correct. Spot on! (Said with a hiss.) – Isaiah White Sep 3 '15 at 21:35

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