2XTreme4Dialect: Using Slang in Prose

Olive pickingMost writers learn quickly that when we refer to the English language, we’re really talking about a group of micro-languages, or dialects, which are so similar that a speaker of one can easily understand the speaker of another. Dialects are differentiated from each others by a variety of markers. Highly important among these markers (at least for writers of fiction) is slang.

Slang can do a remarkable amount of work when it comes to establishing the time and place of your novel. Terms like “Doll-dizzy” and “Killer diller” are as essential to the fabric of a 1940s US setting as bebop records and wartime propaganda. These informal expressions help the reader feel at home in a historical setting. They can also be used to add a modern touch to a story set in the present day, but be warned: in a few years, they will date your narrative and may jar the reader.

Slang can also help you build your characters. While nearly everybody uses slang to some extent, more educated characters (particularly in historical settings) will prefer to use more formal, ‘correct’ language. Moreover, characters from different backgrounds will use different kinds of slang. For example, a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars would have a rather rich slang vocabulary that is distinct from other slang of that era.

There are situations, of course, when you want to avoid the use of slang. Formal and technical writing are obvious areas, and some writers (such as myself) prefer to even keep it out of the narrator’s lines in fiction. You also want to steer clear of slang where it would make your characters seem stereotyped, and you never want to overuse it to the point where your writing becomes impenetrably gimmicky. However, a little informal expression here and there can help you make your settings and characters more rich, varied, and believable to your readers.

Adding Depth with Dialect

DCP_0165Although it’s possible to write in perfectly correct APA or MLA style, it’s difficult to define “correct use of English” on a broad scale. Due to regional and cultural variations in syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation, what counts as correct English in one group may sound atrociously incorrect to another. These different variations of the English language are known as dialects, and learning to use them correctly is an important part of perfecting your fiction.

If you’re writing characters who come from a variety of social, cultural, or geographic backgrounds, then you should pay careful attention to how dialect shapes their speech. For instance, a character from a working class background is not likely to be a stickler about “who” and “whom,” while a college professor is more likely to use elegant speech in casual conversation. Using a variety of dialects adds depth and realism to your prose and helps your reader draw distinctions between characters.

Of course, it pays to use dialect carefully. Avoid annoying your reader by writing in such a strong dialect that your prose becomes incomprehensible; usually, a few of the most notable verbal tics are enough to give readers a good sense of your characters’ dialect. In addition, keep in mind that many dialects are an important part of contemporary cultures. Being respectful and doing your research is a good way to avoid crossing the line between colorful dialect and embarrassing stereotype.

Proper use of dialect is an important part of developing a complex, varied cast of characters for your prose. Although you shouldn’t use it to the point where it’s obnoxious, using a few variations on the English language can help your reader understand your characters and get engaged with your story.