Thursday, November 22, 2012

Y'all Come Set a Spell - Accents/Slang

Consider the following excerpt and the questions that I presented to the Chicago Manual of Style online forum for editors:

My uncle grew up in the hills of Arkansas. His regional dialect often forced me to listen intently as if he spoke a foreign language. I struggled to understand him.

"Boy, ain't no self respect’n coon dog gonna run ’way fumma fight wid'a possum. You gotta be quick on the trigga, an’ shoot that critta 'fore yer dog takes a whuppin."

Notice the fragmented words, phonetic spellings and inconsistent punctuation. Readers might struggle with the uncle's speech pattern, yet the writer wants to create an image that requires such deviations from normal English. If readers stumble on passages like this, they may close the book instead of enjoying the unique voice of that character. I posted the following questions to the editors:

1) How should I use the apostrophe in slang words like "respectin"...should it be respectin' or respect'n or no comma at all…respectin? What about blended words like "dont’cha" for don't you? Would you use an apostrophe at the beginning of a word that drops the "h" as in cockney slang..."C'mon mate, 'ave a 'eart. Poor bloke, ‘e got blowed up in the bloody war. Ain’t got no ‘ands.”

2) When using slang or dropping letters to produce accents (like dropping the "g" in words ending in "ing,") how much is enough? Should the character's speech pattern remain constant throughout the manuscript, or is it enough to suggest a speech pattern initially and return to conventional spellings thereafter?

Here is an answer to my questions from a senior editor at a major publishing house:

“Great questions, Dean!

1. I'd use the apostrophe where it's obvious that a letter is missing. It will help readers follow the dialect so they can better understand what the character is saying.

2. If the character switches back and forth from dialect to no dialect with direct quotes, that will be a red flag to readers and confuse them. Does the character actually speak like this or not? I'd maintain consistency with the character's speech pattern, but I'd also limit the direct quotes wherever possible so they don't exhaust readers.

Of course, it all comes down to being a stylistic thing. Creative writing can take whatever direction the author wants it to, including the punctuation (or lack thereof) with dialects. I find dialects that omit letters easier to read when they have apostrophes. Some authors prefer the stark plainness of omitting them. Sometimes the choice depends on the type of dialect, the character, and the overall storyline (and the anticipated audience).”

What about the bible of editing . . . the Chicago Manual of Style? CMOS, section 7.31, discusses such contractions.  Examples they give are:

’tis (not ‘tis)
dos and don’ts
rock ’n’ roll

What do we writers conclude from both the editor’s comments and the formal CMOS discussion/examples?

My conclusion is that CONSISTENCY TRUMPS STYLE.  That said, which of the possible slang-contraction styles would you choose?


Personally, I like the first and third because the apostrophe simplifies the word for the reader. It indicates missing letters and ushers the reader along the without momentary hesitation that might be caused by a reader wondering if the spelling was a typo. More importantly, pick one style and stick with it throughout the manuscript.

There is one exception for me to that self-imposed "rule" on consistency. Endearments. They don't require an apostrophe.

"Darlin, it's real sweet of you, fixin' that broken fan belt, but I'm still not gettin' in bed with you."
What about quantity of colloquial words? How many apostrophe’d words or phonetically written expressions are really needed to get across an accent or colloquial speech pattern? Will too many annoy or distract readers? YES!

In my opinion, the real trick for a writer is to find balance between enough slang to get across the intended mental image but not so much that the reader becomes bored, distracted or annoyed.

Here's my own simple rule. The first time you meet my character you will get full immersion in his or her dialect. Every time thereafter, I limit such words to a maximum of one or two such words per sentence; just enough to keep the special voice of that character consistent but not enough to become frustrating to the reader.
How about you? How do you handle accents and dialect?


  1. Love this, thank you. I have a few hillbillies written in my MS and i'd hate to pull the reader out by poorly scripted accents.

    1. Atty Eve, that's the theme of this post. Don't give the reader any reason to stop reading. Slang punctuation can make or break a reader's experience.

      Thank you for posting...Dean

  2. Only including enough to give the flavor and allow the reader to fill in the rest in their head.

    1. Terry, I use your formula, too. The only excpetion is the first time I introduce a character's unique speech patterns. I may go a bit overboard for initial impact and then taper it back for the rest of the story.

      Thanks for your valuable input...Dean

  3. I include a few words in dialect or slang, to give the reader a sense of the way my characters speak, but try not to use many modified words. For characters with a foreign accent, I try to vary the rhythm of speech and the words used to create the sense of accent, rather than trying to "sound out" the words.

    Great post, Dean!

    1. Great advice about foreign words, Paula. For me, the decision between using actual foreign words and using phoenetic variations depends on the general public familiarity with the language in question. For example, many people speak French and I would tend to use actual French spellings. But, if I am writing a Cajun French dailect, I am more likely to use transliterations or phonetic representations because their dialect is so localized. This is one of the many areas in creative writing where authors can distinguish their writing from that of their peers by creating a unique voice, both for their characters and for themselves.

      Excellent comment. Thank you...Dean


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