Bad writing habitsBasics of writingDialogue

Dialog vs. correct grammar

From Rick:

I received a comment on last week’s post by Kellee regarding where to draw the line between correct grammar in our writing versus how our characters talk. As the commenter noted, Mark Twain often used idiosyncratic dialog. Twain is one of my favorite (and semi-legendary in my mind) authors. Writing dialog that uses incorrect grammar is not only acceptable, but it’s expected because we humans (American English speakers at least) seem to have a penchant for butchering (or more politely, taking liberties with) our language, to wit the recent acceptance of “they, their, them” as genderless singular pronouns: If someone wants something they don’t deserve, give it to them because they feel it’s their right to have it.

I remember well many years ago when English teachers proclaimed we should not say “ain’t” because “‘ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary.” Even though it wasn’t in the dictionary at the time, it’s in all of them now as nonstandard speech, but journalistic prose uses it frequently as informal style (Reference: Merriam-Webster online dictionary), and we also see it used in a couple of common expressions: “two out of three ain’t bad” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

We hear in ethnic speech the use “they” instead of “their” (He delivers they mail every day.) I frequently hear a popular TV game show host say, “Everybody’s here trying to win theyselves a lot of cash.” And we hear “nucular” as a mispronunciation of “nuclear” even among well-educated politicians and newscasters.

We may cringe at these errors, but at the same time, our language is constantly changing, and we must accept the changes as how people actually speak. As writers we need to realize this as well. If we’re going to make our characters convincing to our readers, then we had better be prepared to write the dialog accordingly—unless our novels are all set in a high-brow academia where everyone speaks grammatically perfect English all the time.

In last-week’s post, I added a caveat at the start of Kellee’s article:

However, be careful of misspellings in dialogue. If a character meant to say “loose” but said “lose,” or said “mute point” instead of “moot point,” then it behooves you as a writer to ensure that your reader understands this was intentional and not an error on the writer’s part.

This brings up the issue of how to handle a character who does repeatedly misuse and mispronounce the language. Some readers will be sensitive to grammar and spelling, and we must take care that our readers understand that our grammatical and spelling errors are INTENTIONAL or they’ll crucify us in their reviews.

As I see it, the only way to prove to our readers that we know what we’re doing is to ensure that our writing is error free outside the dialog. Of course, it won’t hurt to establish early on which characters misuse the language. This means that we cannot say “hoard” when we mean “horde” and “past” when we mean “passed.” If a writer is going to deviate from good English significantly, then he/she may need to warn the reader that such errors are intentional.

SIDE NOTE: Now that so many works are being self-published, I’ve seen enough readers complain about the spelling of words in novels by British authors (colour, humour), not realizing that the author is British and that these are normal and acceptable UK spellings. The problem is that American publishers would “clean up” these spellings and “Americanize” certain expressions.

It’s a shame that we’re only now hearing these expressions through our exposure to British television. How many of you reading this blog are aware that the British spell “tyre” as what automobiles ride on and that “kerb” is the edge of the sidewalk, while they use our spelling of “curb” for all other meanings of the word (to curb the appetite, for example). You may already know “boot” and “bonnet” and “windscreen” (trunk, hood, windshield), but do you know that a “car park” is their parking lot and also a parking garage? A “call box” is a public telephone booth, but in the US it’s an emergency roadside telephone.

Writers should be true to their version of the language and should not have to apologize or be criticized for language variants, but unfortunately in a world where traditional publishers pampered and isolated American readers, we may have to make our readers aware that we know what we’re doing. I find it amusing that I have not heard of UK readers complaining about similar misspellings by US authors.

But I’m rambling…

My point is that writing fiction can be very tricky. We’re taught to use correct grammar, but—as writers—we often have to violate that teaching. The mark of a good writer is knowing when it’s proper and necessary to do so, and the mark of a good editor (the subject of a future blog) is knowing when NOT to correct grammar errors.


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