Monthly Archives: May 2014

Yes, I know how happy you are that I didn’t put you through the whole title again. Now you know how your reader feels when you litter your pages with phonetic interpretations of the speech of race, class, social group or geographical locations. When last we spoke – or I spoke and you read (hopefully) – I said there were some old exceptions to the new rules on dialect in dialogue.

My daddy’s addition to the Ten Commandments was, “All things in moderation,” which he occasionally broke by having a few brews while playing shuffleboard with the guys down at the tavern. (It’s okay, Daddy, I’m occasionally guilty of an extra celebratory glass of Pinot Grigio or Merlot myself.) Too much, and Mama put Daddy in the time-out seat. And so it goes for dialect. A little done well, okay; too much and your reader puts you – no, not in time out – in the circular file!

There are some acceptable contractions or spellings that you can sprinkle in the mix – just enough to give it a flavor of what you mean, but not enough to gag the reader. For example, if the speaker is of a foreign tongue, what are the speech conventions most common in that language? Eh? No, I’m not Canadian, but you get the idea, eh?

Aye, a wee laddie or lassie like you can figure out I’m part of Star Trek’s original crew with a few well-chosen words, can ye not? How about the character who says he’s going to put a torch in his boot? You’d know by context that this is not some crazy masochist with a fire fetish, but a Brit, who for some reason in the story, is putting a flashlight in the trunk of his car. Another example of regional usage would be soft drinks. In your part of the United States, what do you call them? Coke? Pop? Soda? Something else?

Dialogue in general must sound natural to the ear, and having a keen sense for speech patterns will clue your reader to the locale and time period. Someone who speaks of young’uns raising Cain might indicate ethnicity, the speech of a southerner, or that of the wild-west settlers. “My kids are driving me nuts,” is common these days. . . and probably too true.

Sprinkle such spicy alternatives in your work instead of going heavy on the hot-sauce words of dialect, and you won’t offend any group. . . including your time-tight readers.