Showing Dialect in Dialogue

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks how a writer wishing to create “a redneck swagger” would rewrite the “regular English” sentence “You’re surprising to me.”

He offers the following options:

“Y’a surprisin’ t’a me.”
“Y’ah surprisin’ t’ah me.”
“Ya surprisin ta me.”
“Yah surprisin tah me.”

Note: You can find my thoughts on the use of the term redneck here: Better Use “Redneck” With Care.

My reaction to the model dialogue is that a “redneck” is not likely to utter the original sentence, with or without apostrophes. A native English speaker of any dialect would be more likely to say, “You surprise me.” But the point of the question has to do with the use of apostrophes and contractions–and presumably funny spellings–to represent dialect in fictional dialogue.

Fashions in writing change. Representing dropped letters with apostrophes was a common device with 19th century authors.

“Well, then, Master Marner, it come to me summat like this: I can make nothing o’ the drawing o’ lots and the answer coming wrong; it ‘ud mayhap take the parson to tell that, and he could only tell us i’ big words. –George Eliot, Silas Marner.

“I got hurt a little, en couldn’t swim fas’, so I wuz a considable ways behine you, towards de las’; when you landed I reck’ned I could ketch up wid you on de lan’ ‘doubt havin’ to shout at you, but when I see dat house I begin to go slow.” –Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.

Modern readers have little patience with this kind of writing. For one thing, multiple apostrophes and odd spellings are visually distracting. For another, such detailed attention to pronunciation in a novel distracts from the thought that the character is expressing, thereby interfering with an understanding of the narrative. In addition, some readers who speak nonstandard dialects find attempts to represent their home dialects–even if they are successful renditions–disrespectful.

Sprinkling dialogue with odd spellings is especially pointless when the misspelling conveys the same pronunciation as the standard spelling. For example, sez for says, and shure for sure.

The consensus among today’s writing coaches is that dialect is best expressed with vocabulary, grammar, and easily understood regional expressions, rather than with apostrophes and made-up spellings. For example, the following bit of dialogue conveys rural speech without recourse to dropped letters or misspellings:

That woman runs around with anything in pants. Can’t figure out how her and him got together in the first place. Good Lord knows he’s boring as a fence post.” –Nancy Hartney, Washed in the Water.

Words like drawl and whine, and expressions like “a clipped Northern accent” can also be used to suggest a specific way of speaking. In writing dialogue, let the words do the work.

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9 Responses to “Showing Dialect in Dialogue”

  • David Crosswell

    You employ the dialect, you don’t just deform the language: “Wal, I’ll be hornswoggled!”

  • Nana

    I’d suggest a completely different sentence than “You’re surprising to me”. That one is so oddly constructed.

  • Eugene

    “Huck Finn” was sheer torture to read along with others of that ilk. For one, I’m elated to see that era recede into the distant past.

    Along with letting words do the work, what if we include (explain) in character formation that they speak Australian, public school English, Charlestonian, Bostonese, or cracker instead? It seems a better way to do it and doesn’t tax the reader.

    I’m multilingual and can even manage three dialects of American. I could take what I’ve written here, translate it to dialect and it would be totally incomprehensible. I would also defeat my purpose – communication – except to a favored few. Bad, very bad, for the bank account. Mercy!

    ‘”Good Lord knows he’s boring as a fence post.” –Nancy Hartney, Washed in the Water.”‘

    Right on…but. You read that passage and I read it and I’ll bet we come out with similar but different meanings. Why? Tone. I’d read it like this:

    Good Lord knows he’s boring [drawn out tonal emphasis] as a fence post.

    or could’ve been written like

    Good Lord, he’s boring [drawn out tonal emphasis] as a fence post.

    My point is tone and how to bring that across to someone unfamiliar with the dialect. The only way I can think of at the moment is by explanation in the character’s outline. Is it totally satisfactory? I don’t think so but it’ll have to do.

  • Lisa Jey Davis

    Interesting that you consider Mark Twain’s writing to be outdated… when in reading it I find it quite brilliant, as usual. I think people make incredible allowances if they enjoy the writer or the writer’s style. Case in point: Text-ease. You’re saying modern “readers” don’t have patience for Twain’s style, and yet, the most modern of reader around are those who text misspelled and abbreviated words ad nauseum.

  • Heather

    And what about Zora Neale Hurston?

  • Marie Miller

    Sorry, for once I have to disagree. I love it when the author can capture the dialect with mis spellings and shortened words. I can read it with the same accent that character is saying and that helps to put you in the moment/country/region.
    Not being familiar with “rednecks”, if a writer can successfully portray their manner of speech, it helps the reader to identify the type of person they might be.

    “readers who speak nonstandard dialects find attempts to represent their home dialects–even if they are successful renditions–disrespectful.”
    Again, it is how others hear your speech. Australians know their accent can come across as a nasal drawl and it is always interesting to see how Americans, in particular, ‘translate” their speech.

  • Shawn

    Yep. Dialect.

    One of the classic examples of, “No no no, li’l wannabe writer. That’s reserved for GOOD authors. ESTABLISHED authors. FAMOUS authors. Not for you you you, li’l wannabe writer.”

    Nobody says boo when Stevie King uses dialect.

  • venqax

    First, I’d say you have to a grasp of what a dialect is. It isn’t just and accent. Often you can tell the difference between those 2 by seeing them written. An accent doesn’t show up in standard writing. Writing doesn’t show how you’re pronouncing route, or creek, or roof, or either and neither, if you are rhoticizing or not. OTOH, a true dialect uses characteristic vocabulary, grammar, syntax, spelling, etc. So it does show up in writing when you say lorry instead of truck, or chips when you mean fries and crisps when you mean chips, or use slang like “bloody” and “mate” and say things like, “I already have done”. And of course when you use funny spellings like kerb, labour, progamme, and tonne.

    Then, for dialogue specifically you have to know what “sound” it is you want to convey. “Redneck” isn’t an accent or a dialect of any kind. Most people who would use the term probably have in mind a southern or Appalachian regional accent (and there are many), a rural or uneducated way of speaking (which is probably just that, and not a dialect), or speech about certain subject matter that has nothing to do with dialect or accent. (Anything spoken on the subject of NASCAR is not “redneck dialect”.) I think I would tell the inquirer that the nature of his question indicates he is not ready to use dialect in his writing. “If I’m drunk and swinging the wrecking ball, what’s the best way of knowing I’m hitting the right building?”

  • AnWulf

    First of all, I find spellings like “dialogue” to be much more distracting than dialog spellings that show an accent.

    Venqax is right, dialect is more than only accent. Folks do say, “sho nuff” for “sure enough”. Having a character say, “That’s fer shur, Sir.” brings over the accent whereas, “That’s for sure, Sir.” could be said with any accent.

    Writing this way can also contrast two bods … mayhap one more learn’d than the other or that one is a foreigner.

    Overusing it can be bothersum, but sprinkling it out adds flavor.

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