Dialect is closely related to grammar in speech because the two are so often linked. Often a heavily colloquial voice will have non-standard grammar, but a very upper-class voice might also because they have their own form of dialect. As an example British English is rife with these sorts of contrasts because it is so influenced by class; there’s the cliché that all working class cockneys say ‘evenin’, guv’na’ and upper-class people say things like ‘what-oh’. Though the upper-classes like to consider their grammar and language far superior to the working class at no point is ‘what-oh’ grammatical or not a form of dialect.

Dialect can be tricky because although our character speaks colloquially the reader still needs a sense of what they are saying. The obvious way to do this might be to have heavy dialect and then have a translation in the proses or in a footnote. This can be tricky to pull off because translating it is rarely as fun and interesting as the dialect itself and can slow the story down if we’re always stopping to translate.

Another way is through context where we find a balance of ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’ language so the reader can piece together the meaning from what is around the words they don’t recognise. This can be more satisfying and more memorable because the reader gets the enjoyment of understanding without being told.

This still begs the question: ‘how much is too much?’ The only people who can really answer this are the writer and the reader but a general rule might be to remember that we want the story to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. This means we can’t simply assume that they will understand every word or make the effort to look it up. They might, but they might decide there’s too much to look up and just put the book down instead.

As I discussed when talking about phonetics I find that the best method, for me and it might not work for everyone, is to give a flavour. To do this we have to find the right rhythm and word choice for the character because sometimes the right rhythm can be more effective than heavily colloquial speech because it can give the impression of that colloquialness without having to have every word either slang or phonetic. This doesn’t mean we can’t use slang, we still use it and we can use it every sentence if we want but we’re still using enough ‘standard’ words for the reader to make sense of what is being said, though we don’t have to use them in a ‘standard’ order.

It’s important to remember that in writing, as with many other things, less can be more. When we’re writing speech we’re not trying to exactly replicate the precise manner of real life speech because on the page this can sound more artificial than speech that doesn’t. This can be a very tricky thing to get right and varies from character to character but that is why we edit.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on dialogue see Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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One thought on “Dabbling in Dialect

  1. This is soooo interesting and you could go in and in. I have a problem in that I usually think about what I’m going to say and when I speak, particularly in formal situations, it’s as though I am reading dialogue, very formally. Consequently people think I’m standoffish and have a stick up my butt or something. 😕

    Liked by 1 person

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