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Writing Dialect

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If you have a foreign character who speaks with an accent, capture their sentence patterns, slang, colloquialisms, word substitutions, word omissions, and speech mannerisms. Don’t write every speech sound phonetically. Not only does it obfuscate your dialogue and confuse the reader, but it is extremely difficult to maintain formatting consistency — and what a nightmare to spell check. Try it once, and you’ll never want to try it again—but avoid the “once” and dodge the headaches.

Phonetics in Dialect

If you wrote the Irish dialect phonetically, it would be:

Example: “Top o’ the marnin’ to ya’, me little darlin’.”

In word substitution, nineteenth-century Irish used me for my, and it’s okay to substitute because contextually, the reader should figure out the substitution if they are not already familiar with it.

Phonetic spelling can be difficult to understand because the reader has to “translate” each one, and it ends up a distraction. Most readers are familiar with the basic dialects (Cockney and Standard English, Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, French, Russian, etc).

Better example: “Top of the morning to you, me little darling.”

Sentence patterns can give the feel of the dialect without confusing the reader. For instance, in a refined Victorian English dialect, capturing patterns like “I haven’t the foggiest notion” work better than a plain “I don’t know.”

Danger, Will Robinson!

Don’t use everything you’ve researched. Though accurate, some findings may be incomprehensible to the modern reader. Many readers not familiar with Regency England (Jane Austen’s era) may stumble over something as simple as “Would that I came sooner, I may have been of some assistance.”

For an extreme case, try the rhyming feature of the English Cockney dialect (started about 1840). Unless you’re Cockney, you won’t stand a chance of understanding the following:

“I told her I ain’t got no bees and honey, and she told me that I’d have to go off and do bird lime-time then. I stole a butcher’s hook of her Bristol City and went off to get Brahms and Liszt.”

Translation: “I told her I ain’t got no money, and she told me that I’d have to go off and do jail time then. I stole a look of her breasts and went off to get pissed (drunk).”

Don’t Take My Word For It — Please!

It’s not just me warning you. Okay, guys, you’re my backup. Have a go at it:

Oakley Hall in How Fiction Works states, “Phonetic spelling is a crude device for indicating dialect peculiarities, and if used at all, should be employed sparingly.”

The Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction says, “Writing dialect is like walking on eggshells—tread carefully. It’s tough to do well, and if it is done well, it still can be distracting.”

James V. Smith in You Can Write a Novel states, “Don’t write dialects. Readers don’t like dialects, and editors hate them … Better to hint at a dialect in the vocabulary and sentence construction … let the reader supply the interpretation of slurring, drawling, singsong speech patterns instead of trying to re-create them on paper.”

So, don’t take my word for it. Are there any questions?

And Another Thing

You will save yourself tremendous headaches with trying to be consistent in using apostrophes to indicate dropped final consonants, like the g in ing (rewindin’, comin’, and cruisin’ for examples). And it’s extremely difficult to start a truncated word with a smart apostrophe as in ’sides, ’stead, and ’bout because M.S. Word wants to make them single quote marks.

Dialect vs. Lazy Speech

Many novice writers treat lazy speech as a dialect. We all sometimes speak leaving off the g in ing words. We all use wanna, gonna, coulda, woulda, shoulda, etc. from time to time. There’s no need to portray phonetically lazy speech. Assume we talk plainly, though we don’t; but your characters must because the first job of a writer is to communicate.

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Eugene Orlando is a board member, group leader, regional director, and lifetime member of the FWA. He is also an author of works of fiction and books on writing. Early in 2015, he became an editor for FWA’s “Editors Helping Writers” program and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

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8 Responses

  1. L. Dean Murphy
    | Reply

    Top o’ the marnin’ to ya’, Gene, ol’ boy. Excellent observations. As a reviewer, I see ludicrous dialect attempts–especially when Yankees try to write Southern dialect.☺ Americans notoriously truncate phrases. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone often says “Have at it,” instead of “Have a go at it.” Perhaps it’s the British influence, where public house is shortened to pub.

  2. Joni M Fisher
    | Reply

    Excellent advice on writing dialects. Thank you. I’ve found reading phonetic spellings and truncated words in fiction tiresome and confusing. Word choice and the order of words in a sentence give the feel of a dialect enough for me as a reader!

    • Eugene Orlando
      | Reply

      Thanks. Spread the word. It’s a hard habit to break, and to many beginners, it “feels” right to use dialect.

  3. Sandra Beattie-Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Eugene,

    We met years ago at FWA in Tampa. I am a Canadian snowbird.
    It is so nice to see your name and expertise growing.
    Wishing you every success!

    Sandra Beattie-Stevens

    • Eugene Orlando
      | Reply

      Yes, I remember you. I’ve had a few life disasters since then, but I’m still going strong.

  4. Warren Harry
    | Reply

    Excellent advice. I am reading Nora Robert’s “Liar.” It is set in Ridge, TN, the heart of the Smoky Mountains. I lived in the Appalachian mountains for thirty years. They have their own dialect. Roberts does not attempt to use the dialect. Instead she lets her characters tell the story in a way that you know they are phrasing a dialect used by mountain people.
    You’ve given some good advice. Every geographical area in the country have their own subtle nuances and writers need to be aware of them.

    Warren Harry

  5. Eugene Orlando
    | Reply

    Thanks, Warren. Yes, making characters from rural backgrounds spring to life can be a lot of fun. You remember the mountain woman (played by Renee Zellweger) in Cold Mountain? When she burst on the scene, the whole story picked up. There are so many other creative ways to suggest dialect.

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