Showing Dialect in Dialogue
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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