On Writing Dialect


There's a discussion currently going on at one of the on-line writer's community websites regarding writing dialect. I see many writers who think they have to spell out a character's dialect to characterize him as someone who doesn't speak fluent, well-polished English.

Samuel Clemens did this in "Huckle Berry Finn." I've read that book a couple of times and got awfully tired of reading the "Southern" dialect he uses for Huck Finn and the "Negro" dialect of his companion Jim. George Bernard Shaw used his description of Eliza Doolittle's cockney dialog in the stage play Pygmalion, but after the first chapter he desisted, realizing it would be horribly laborious for the reader.

Perhaps it would have been better for Clemens to do as Shaw did - that is, start the first scene using the dialectical dialog to show how she speaks, then revert to normal dialog for the rest of his story, but I believe there is a better way.

In my opinion, both Clemens’ and Shaw’s styles are less than desirable. As Sol Stein pointed out in his book, "Stein on Writing," (1995, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, p. 118 - 121), “Spelling out pronunciations is almost always a bad choice. I would also like to caution against the use of dialect in which speech is differentiated from the standard language by odd spellings. . . . Dialect is annoying to the reader. It takes extra effort to derive the meaning of words on the page; that effort deters full involvement in the experience of a story. . . . As a substitute for dialect use word order, omitted words, and other markers.”

I think writers would be better off using colloquialisms, broken sentences, sentence fragments, awkward or unusual sentence structures, words added or deleted where they normally would be, etc., to show the dialectical dialog. But all the time maintain proper spelling. The reader's mind will supply the strange or foreign accents, dialectical pronunciations, etc.

I've tried to do this in my book "The Bridge Beckons." I have Mexican, Italian, and roughian dialects all portrayed in it with no misspellings, and have received many comments on how realistic it sounds.

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Monday, July 18, 2005

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