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Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 9:26 am
by glorybee
A dialect is a pattern of speech that is found in a particular region. It is not a separate language, but it may differ from the standard language of the country in its vocabulary, its pronunciation, and its sentence structure. Some examples of dialect might be the “Jersey Shore” speech heard in the television show of that same name, a Cockney accent from London’s east end, or the “Yooper” dialect from my own home state of Michigan. If I make the definition a bit broader and include accents, the list of possibilities is virtually endless.

Writers frequently have one or more of their characters speak in a dialect. This can often be a good thing, but there are also some pitfalls for writers to avoid. I’ll try to cover both of those in this lesson.

When you write your character’s voice in a dialect, you are telling your reader several things about that character. Dialect can indicate a character’s position in life: her level of education, her age, her economic status, her geographical background—and if I add jargon (the vocabulary particular to a profession or some other distinct group), it might even indicate her occupation. So dialect can aid you in characterization—these are things that you do not have to tell the reader, saving you more words that you can then use to tell your story.

Dialect is also a good tool for giving your characters unique voices. If you have two characters who can be similarly described—both, for example, are middle-aged men—then giving one of them a dialect or an accent will help your readers to keep track of who’s who.

Additionally, well-written dialect can give your writing a unique rhythm, and it can be really fun to read. I recommend that you give writing in dialect a try if you’re looking for a way to stretch yourself or to make your piece stand out.

However—there are a few warnings for those who write in a dialect.

1. Be sure that you get it right. If it’s not a dialect that is very familiar to you, spend some time listening to speakers of that dialect, and perhaps transcribing what you hear. If that’s not possible for reasons of time or geography, find something that’s written with that dialect and take note of how it is written. If you get it wrong, it will reflect on your writing, and someone who is more familiar with that dialect will call you on it.

Although King James English isn’t exactly a dialect, I can use it to demonstrate this point. We’ve all heard people with only a nodding acquaintance with the language of that version of the Bible when they attempt what they think is “biblical” language. Thou is makething me laughest. Ye shouldeth not doeth that. It makes you cringe, doesn’t it? That’s the way a poorly-written or inauthentic dialect will sound to those who are familiar with its rhythms.

2. Be careful not to overdo the writing of non-standard phrases; your reader will get weary of the work they have to do to mentally translate the dialect. Take a look at this, written in a bad approximation of a southern dialect:

Ah jes’ couldn’ belive mah eyes! Lawd, thet young’un were a sight, ‘n’ ah never knewed whut dun hit me. She wuz so purty it made me wanna slap mah muther, ‘n’ she wuz jist a-grinnin’ an’ a-laughin’ et me lak nobuddy’s bidness.

That’s exhausting to read, isn’t it? I’d suggest that if you have a character who speaks in a dialect, you should pick a few words or linguistic quirks that are suggestive of that dialect--just enough to give your reader the idea of that character’s speech.

3. Finally, you should be very careful—very, very careful—that your rendering of dialect does not come across as a stereotype, exaggeration, or satire of any particular group’s speech patterns, and that nothing you write could be considered insulting to members of the group for whom that dialect is their native tongue. If you’re not sure, have someone from that group read it. They will tell you if it is accurate, and also if it is offensive.

HOMEWORK: (Choose one or more of the following exercises)

1. Write a paragraph or two with some dialect or accent.
2. Link to a challenge entry you wrote with a dialect or accent, and tell whether you think you did it effectively. Also tell why you used the dialect—what did it bring to the story?
3. Tell about a book you’ve read that uses dialect effectively.
4. Ask a question or make a comment about the use of dialect.

Finally, I'd like to encourage you to check out the Critique Circle. I know that Mike and Bea have elicited the help of several seasoned writers and editors to stop by there frequently and to critique new additions. There's a new category there for "Challenge Entries"--a great place to put that entry that you loved, but didn't score well for a more in-depth critique.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 12:47 pm
by Anja
Ha, I just discovered I can access FW on my e-reader! I have tried on my smartphone, and it shuts down my browser every time.

I agree with all your points, Jan. I would add that if you incorporate terms from a particular region, along with the dialect, that it is very clear from the context what you are referring to. An example of that would be an eastern Canadian (specifically a Newfoundlander) saying something to the effect, "She has a tongue like a logan." Meaning she talks a lot, and often gossips. But the reference is to a boot called a logan, a tall, lace-up boot worn by a fisherman, with a very long tongue. A non-maritimer wouldn't know that -- I may be saying it incorrectly after these years. It's been a while since I heard Mrs. Meta -- so while it's colourful, there's no meaning if the reader is unacquainted with the dialect. But revelation must be subtle. There's nothing more annoying than a series of definitions injected into the text. Dialect must always flow naturally.

Here's a link to a story I wrote with dialect. (I have forgotten how to link the title to the link.) ... p?id=31783

I used dialect for two reasons. To show place and time. To give my characters life.

Recently, I've read several books with heavy use of dialect. Cane River by Lalita Tademy. Wonderful flow which kept the reader 'in time' and empathetic to the characters. Another is The Birth House by Ami McKay. Takes place in maritime Canada just before WW1. I would consider each brilliant examples of bringing authenticity to the stories through the use of dialect and the vernacular without its being forced or awkward.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 4:12 pm
by itsjoanne
Writing in dialect can be fun - but YES, it can definitely be overdone. If I'm spending too much time deciphering the words that I can't concentrate on the story, it's time to tone it down a bit. But, I'll admit, it's VERY hard to figure out where you are on that slipperly slope!

Here's a challenge entry I wrote with dialect Ol' Hairy Ears 'n Me. I used the dialect for characterization - but also, if I recall, because there was a discussion here on the boards about dialect, and I went back through my challenge entries and realized, as of that time, I had never done it. Looking back on it now, I think I may have overdone it a bit - though I will say that I wrote this almost six years ago, and that's a good enough excuse for me! It definitely gave the piece a fun angle.

Thanks, Jan :)

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 4:46 pm
by Cinnamon Bear
Oh, I love regional dialects. :D

Here is a link to "The Rev'rend Makes a Sick Call". It is a retelling of one of my favorite Bible stories which I always imagined in an Appalachian setting.

As mentioned in some of the comments, I made a number of mistakes. Many FW members are more familiar with Appalachian dialect than I: ... p?id=15127

This is a link to "The Cardinal Visits the Bishop", written in Scottish dialect, which lies somewhere between Scottish English and the Scots language. In this story, an Italian cardinal arrives in Scotland to find that his perfect Oxford English is not considered "proper English" by the Scottish bishop. I lived in Scotland for two years, and so have more of an ear for this dialect: ... p?id=27534

I, like many Americans, love to hear Scottish people talk---even when we can't understand a thing they are saying. :lol:

Cinnamon Bear

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 5:30 pm
by glorybee
Ann, as always, your story was lovely, and it was no effort at all to read your dialect. In fact, even though it's not one that I've ever heard, I felt as if I could hear it as I was reading it, and that's exactly the desired effect. Thanks for the link!

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 5:33 pm
by glorybee
Jo, I don't think you overdid it at all. A great story that I actually remember reading first time around. Thanks for sharing it again!

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 5:38 pm
by glorybee
Virginia, that second link is absolutely priceless! Thank you so much for sharing it here; I was delighted to read it again.


Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Tue Apr 15, 2014 1:51 am
by GeraldShuler
I wrote one just to play with the idea of dialect. The POV was voiced in a back hills, uneducated American dialect and he is telling about trying to communicate with a refined, educated relative in England. My challenge in this one was in writing the Englishman's dialect as repeated by the American (with much lost in the effort). I hope the "proper" English feel came through even though it was intentionally mutilated.

The title is "The Problem With Englishmen" and the link is ... p?id=27512. I figure there must have been some dialect overkill because it didn't place well at all.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Tue Apr 15, 2014 11:37 am
by glorybee
That one is totally delightful, Gerald! Thanks for reminding us.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Thu Apr 17, 2014 1:50 am
by RachelM
The thought of writing dialects freaks me out, but I sure enjoy reading stories by good writers who do it well.

I'm reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud to my kids right now, and I love reading Huck's voice, but Jim's is crazy hard to read out loud, and half of the time I don't know what he's saying. :)

I don't really think that this counts as dialect, but I tried to write a story in the conversational tone of a precocious 11 year-old.

What's Left

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Thu Apr 17, 2014 11:40 am
by glorybee
Rachel, you're right that this isn't really a dialect--but still, it makes an important point. However a writer imagines their characters, they need to be sure that their characters speak authentically. I've read lots of entries in which children speak far too wisely for their years (less often, far too young for their years). And I've read entries that featured teens, or doctors, or teachers, or truckers, or any number of other identifiers, in which their speech did not ring true. That's not the case with this story--you got it right!

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Fri Apr 18, 2014 10:03 pm
by WriterFearNot
Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite classics, The Grapes of Wrath:

Joad looked at (the cat), and his face was puzzled. "I know what's the matter," he cried. "That cat jus' made me figger what's wrong."

Seems to me there's lots wrong," said Casy.

"No, it's more'n jus' this place. Whyn't that cat jus' move in with some neighbors--with Rances. How come nobody ripped some lumber off this house? Ain't been nobody here for three-four months, an' nobody's stole no lumber. Nice planks on the barn shed, plenty good planks on the house, winda frames--an' nobody's took 'em. That ain't right. That's what was botherin' me, an' I couldn't catch hold of (the cat).

"I don' know. Seems like maybe there ain't any neighbors..."

I love this book. The story, the characters, and even the strong dialect depicting the poor lower class in all their humanity, as the author rides the line so dangerously close to being offensive. (Or maybe Steinbeck stepped over the line once or twice).

Thanks for the lesson, Jan. Dialect is something I struggle with in my own writing and I have a question. Where can a writer find a really great resource for studying a Texas drawl?


Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 19, 2014 8:24 am
by glorybee
Theresa, I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don't. I think maybe you should take a nice vacation to Texas!

My favorite example of powerful dialect writing is in "To Kill a Mockingbird," especially during the courtroom scenes when Mayella Ewing is speaking. When I was teaching, I team-taught for a few years with a male English teacher, and when we got to the courtroom chapters, he and I read those scenes to the class as if we were Mayella and Atticus. Could be my favorite classroom memory.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 19, 2014 12:42 pm
by swfdoc1
Dialect is very hard! I don’t think I’ve ever written in it, but here are a few thoughts triggered by the lesson and others’ comments.

1. I have written in “King James English” once (in this piece) and had an interesting experience. I made sure all the pronouns and verb endings were correct. It’s really not that hard—all you have to understand is 1st, 2nd, 3rd person; singular and plural pronouns; and nominative, objective, and possessive case. But I over-thought things and decided that some readers would think some of the correct usages were incorrect, so I deliberately changed some correct ones to incorrect ones. As you can see from the comments, someone—I don’t remember who (cough cough Jan cough cough)—busted me.

2. As folks may remember, Twain wrote this at the beginning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Mark Twain wrote:In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
3. Dialects can change quickly, often within 20 or 30 miles. When I was a forester in North and South Carolina, I loved to hear the differences over the areas I worked. Typically, I would be assigned to an 8 - 10 county area and the dialects would vary greatly. One town, spelled “Whiteville,” was pronounced “Whahdvul” by the locals. In that same area, “whatever” meant “what,” and if you really wanted to convey “whatever,” you had to say “whatever what.” Same with “when,” “whenever,” and “whenever when”; and other “-ever” word groups. In and around Charleston, some people say “case quarter” for “quarter” (the coin). I could go on and on, as could we all; but my point is how SMALL an area a dialect can be accurate for.

Re: Be a Better Writer--USING DIALECT

Posted: Sat Apr 19, 2014 5:25 pm
by glorybee
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was another one that I loved reading aloud to my students. So much fun!

(Sorry for dinging you on the King James English.)