How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

Pretty girl in black holding a glowing light bulb

Hey, gang! Mae Clair here to talk about light bulbs and, well, you’ll see…

I’m a lifelong resident of Pennsylvania. Central Pennsylvania to be precise. We don’t have accents (well, unless you venture into Dutch Country), but I’ve come to realize we do use terms and phrases that sometimes leave others scratching their heads.

When I started writing that became a bit of an eye-opener. Oh sure, I was familiar with regional accents from different parts of the country and realize every area has colloquialisms, but I never realized I occasionally spoke in a manner that other people thought unusual. Given my professional career and my love for the written word, I have a strong vocabulary. I’ve frequently been told I express myself well, even in casual conversation.  Over time, I’ve developed a tendency for certain precise pronunciations that have become second nature. Some examples:

I pronounce this word as I-ther, not E-ther which is the common pronunciation for my area.

I pronounce this as go-ing (two distinct syllables) as opposed to goin’ which is the common choice for my region.

Same as above. You’ll hear both syllables (do-ing) rather than the more casual doin’.

No biggies. But when the internet opened a new world of connections, and I began working with critique partners, I learned something shocking—some of my word choices are clearly colloquialisms. Take this sentence as an example:

The light bulb needs to be changed.

It’s how many people would say and write it (or perhaps, “the light bulb should be changed.”). Imagine my surprise when I realized I commonly say and write: The light bulb needs changed.

I can’t tell you how many times critique partners have flagged me because I dropped the “to be.” I had no clue I did it, no clue the phrase wasn’t correct. I still use similar phrasing in character dialogue to reflect local color, but now I’m on constant alert for it in my prose. Even my emails.

Another example: When I wrote a story with a setting I identified as Riverfront, two critique partners said it should be “the riverfront.” They argued it was strange to use it as a proper name. But I grew up in an area with a location commonly referred to as Riverfront. It’s completely natural to me.

And then there is macadam. Apparently, the rest of the country considers this word the equivalent of something from a foreign language. I even had an editor call me on it, telling me the only other author she’d ever seen use the word was Janet Evanovich. She made me change it to asphalt.

Seriously…is macadam really that strange?

What about you? Are there regional terms or phrases that occasionally slip into your writing without your awareness? I’d love to hear some of your examples.

36 thoughts on “How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

  1. Interesting post. I totally understand, being from the Pittsburgh area. We are constantly teased about the terms we use – mostly things like “yinz” instead of you or you all and “crick” instead of creek. In writing, I usually avoid the obvious ones. When writing my last (and first) book, which takes place in New England, I didn’t even attempt to reproduce any accents except for one character – the old lighthouse keeper. As a child, I watched a TV show which was set somewhere along the coast in New England. There was an elderly gentleman on the show and when writing, I attempted to use his voice for that character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Cheryl! Thanks for popping in and commenting. It’s great to connect with another “Keystoner” even if you are across the state 🙂 Someday I must make it to Pittsburgh. I’ve heard residents have a distinctive accent that I must hear firsthand.(BTW, “crick” is fun)

      Your book sounds intriguing (I looked it up on Amazon). I love a New England setting, and the ghostly element appeals to me. Do you remember the name of the TV show? You have me curious, trying to figure out what it could be 🙂


  2. As much as the post, I ‘gotta’ say, I loved Marcia’s southern commentation. Lol. I’m Canadian.We’re the ones who say ‘we don’t have an accent’ but foreigners beg to differ. What’s funny is we have different provinces just as the US has states. Certain provinces have their own little accents, just as the US. Here in Toronto, Ontario, I’m sticking with ‘we have no accent’, but what cracks me up is we are all generalized for a term Americans like to rib us with the word ‘about’, which is pronounced exactly how it sounds, but the East Coasters in the Maritime provinces tend to pronounce about – aboot. And that seems to be the consensus that this is how all Canadians speak, but not true. Just like eh? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • So it isn’t just the U.S. with our weird regional dialects, LOL.

      I love aboot. It makes me think Scottish though, so maybe that pronunciation carried across the pond. I have never been to Canada, which seems a real shame considering how close it is. Maybe one of these days I’ll get there and can judge for myself about your accents. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never thought I had an accent until I did a blog radio interview. When listeners started commenting on my voice/accent, I was so surprised. Me? Nah. It’s everyone else who speaks funny. 😀 Apparently, I have a Boston accent. So do I use odd phrases? Oh, yeah. However, since many of my characters are from the Boston area I can get away with it in my writing…to a point.

    This post reminds me of Karin Slaughter. When I first read one of her series I’d be laughing out loud, thinking “Poor thing. What an embarrassing typo.” But it wasn’t a typo. It was a common phrase used in Atlanta, Georgia. Struck me so funny, though. I wish I could remember the phrase. Not enough of caffeine yet. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue, I LOVE a Boston accent. How very cool that you have one. I’m sure you sound great on the blog radio show 🙂
      And I’ve never read Karin Slaughter, but now you have me wondering what that phrase/word might have been, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great post!! My husband is a combination East and West Texan and I’m from the mountains of North Carolina. The first time heard me say hosepipe, he horse laughed!! He informed me that it was a water hose. After years of the water hose/hosepipe debate, I googled hosepipe. I’ve never let him live it down that it is the British term for hose.

    Also, the area where I grew up has a few towns and communities that are not pronounced the way they’re spelled. You can always tell a tourist by the way they pronounce them. Wayheutta and Cashiers are two examples. If you’re native, it’s Worry-Hut and Cashers. We don’t have pop or soda, EVERYTHING is Coke. A poke is something you carry your lunch in, and we mash buttons, not push them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Terri! What fun comments. I have to admit I never heard the term hosepipe before, but now I’m enlightened, LOL. That’s a good one.
      I like the mashing buttons too, and the poke for carrying your lunch.
      What great insight on the town pronunciations. I never thought of that one, but we have Lancaster and Lebanon around here, which out-of-staters usually pronounce as Lan-caster (instead of Lanc-ka-ster) and Leb-a-non (instead of Leb-a-nin). Town pronunciations could be a whole different post! 🙂

      When I first started my Mothman series and visited Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio it took me what seemed an eternity to get the pronunciation of Gallipolis correct. I kept say ga-lip-o-lis and it’s actually galli-police. Now it rolls off the tongue, LOL!


  5. Hi Mae, I have many of the same issues as you. Often, I’m told I write too formal, and then other times skip those stop words like to be 🙂
    I think that’s what makes our voices unique, though. Neither (said with an I) is right or wrong, after all.
    Being Canadian I’m also told certain words aren’t American enough, like washroom compared to bathroom. They mean the same thing people, get over it! lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been called on formal writing too, Jacquie. I’ve tried to adjust and use it where it fits, but sometimes that style naturally slips through. I remember a critique partner told me once–over some word I had used in dialogue (I can’t remember what it was)– “No one talks like that in real life.”
      I had a deer-in the-headlights moment, because I had to reply. “Really? I do!” 🙂

      And I can see where it would be even harder with expressions and terms when you’re Canadian. Especially given American slang, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, I’ve have never thought you, a native speaker, could have such problems.
    What then, about me? As a non native English speaker I find it more difficult. Sometimes things are confusing as British English and American English have words with totally different meanings – think about “downtown”. Or the way you write the date. ( I even am writing a story based on this.) Baffling indeed! So I often end with Romlish – Romanian& English!
    As about “macadam” versus “asphalt”, we use here both without dewons from the other speakers,The words are exactly like this in Romanian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carmen, you amaze me with your ability to write in a second language. I like your term “Romlish” 🙂
      And you are so right about British English and American English. Not only are there different words to describe the same thing boot/trunk bonnet/hood, but different spellings too: colour/color tyre/tire
      It must be hard keeping those straight when learning a new language. I’m finding that with Spanish. Many of the words are said differently in Spain than Latin America. It’s hard enough learning a different language, but even worse when that language has variables!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mae, that is so funny that you chose the “to be” example. I grew up in Western PA (40 minutes from Pittsburgh), and I never knew that was grammatically incorrect. They never flagged that in school, K-12. Imagine my horror when I was in a creative writing class at college and my work was being critiqued by classmates. We weren’t allowed to speak in our defense; we were only to listen to the comments. One student had a five-minute rant about my sloppy grammar. I was mortified because I didn’t even know it was wrong. Then, when he was finished, my professor countered him by saying I used the construction in dialogue, which was a brilliant and effective use of colloquialism to establish setting through dialogue without saying “these people are from Pittsburgh” and she not only defended the construction, she commended it. That student was shamed into admitting what I had done was subtle and smart. I just smiled like it was intentional, but when I left, I had to look up the rule to see what the problem was. Can you imagine?

    When we moved to Ohio, I met someone who was from McKeesport (also near Pittsburgh). We met because I started laughing when she said she needed to change out of her “tenners” and into dress shoes. (Tenners is short for tennis shoes.) We proceeded to have a ten-minute discussion using all Pittsburgh-isms. None of the other parents had a clue what we were talking about. (We both have moved from Ohio since then, but we’re still friends. Pittsburgh language formed a bond that just can’t be broken!) I no longer speak in ‘Burgh-words, but I recognize the language and love that it’s so definitive.

    Long story short: Colloquialisms can be effective in establishing both character and setting in fiction. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Love that you worked that whole “I did it on purpose” thing so well. And I use all of the above to make my characters as real as I can. My books are set in the south, so I have a wealth of experience to pull from. I’m not sure I’d try to write a book set elsewhere, just because I’d probably phrase things totally wrong for the area, and lose credibility with the readers. Or at least, pull them out of the story for a moment or two.

      For instance, down here, we say “Take I-4 to Exit 36,” or “Take Highway 27 south for four miles.” I found out on a trip to California that they’d never say that. It’s usually, “Take the 27 four miles south.” I would never have written “the 27” or “the 4.” Small things like that can trip you up, when you are trying to establish your setting and your characters, and readers do notice. At least they do when it’s wrong.


    • What great stories, Staci. And I can relate to that mortification you initially felt over the college piece. You’re absolutely right that I don’t recall any teacher every flagging that in K-12, even in writing classes. Now, when I’m around someone and they drop the “to be” from a sentence, I pick up on it. It’s just the norm for my area. I’ve also heard British speaker drop it, which is odd, because we always think of Brits as speaking such proper English.

      I like the tenners, too. 🙂 Here, we just call them sneakers, but I know we have plenty of other words that are weird, especially when you get into Dutch-speak (ret-up, ramming around, gawking). I had a friend in Alabama who asked me once if I played putt-putt. It took me three emails to figure out she was talking about “miniature golf.” She also told me that southern people go to the “beach” and northern folk go to the “shore.”

      I love stuff like this! 🙂


  8. You’re askin’ a Southern gal here. (See what I did there? 🙂 ) And since you’ve read A Boy Named Rabbit, you know I’m pretty well versed in Southernese. (BTW, I’d say “The lightbulb needs changin’.”) But I do understand those Pennsylvania accents and expressions, very well. My father was from Wilkinsburg and my first husband from Millvale (both suburbs of Pittsburgh). I lived in that area for several years, and I often found myself scratchin’ my head.

    People don’t clean the kitchen or the house. They “red it up.” They warsh their clothes, instead of washin’ ’em. Men have ear sluggers instead of sideburns. My MIL once asked me to pick up a pound of jumbo from the grocery store. Jumbo what? Turns out, that’s what they called bologna. Just “jumbo.” My father called our national symbol an “iggle,” and said “Howlever” instead of “however.” Where’d that “L” come from? And don’t even get me started on the Philly “L,” which somehow always ends up sounding like a “W” to my Florida ears.

    I reckon I’ll never know the why of it, but . . . yew people up yonder tawk funny!!!! 😀 Y’all (or you’uns, as it was said in Millvale) should come on down here for a coupla days, an’ we’d learn ya better! 😀 Oh, well. In the long run, it makes no nevermind to me. I love y’all anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

      • We could probably write a Pittsburg/Philly/PA dictionary, and sell millions of copies to newly arrived residents, who are scratching their heads like I did. What with all the Pennsylvania Dutch thrown into the mix, it’s a whole ‘nuther world up there. 🙂 But at least when I moved there (in my 20’s), I found out that my father wasn’t t he only person on the planet who talked like that. 😀 There were countless others! Who knew? 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, we do the “ret up” thing around here too, Marica. Love the “iggle” and the “jumbo.” Never heard the jumbo before.
      I have a friend who is from the Johnstown area of PA and she asked me once if I liked “gobs.” That one had me scratching my head. “Gobs?” Really? Turns out she was referring to whoopie pies.

      I had a neighbor growing up who said “warsh” instead of wash.

      Loved your comments. They had me chuckling. And it sounds like you and Staci would have a lot of expressions to share 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve forgotten half of the things that used to make me laugh, or that confused me. I was 24. I’m 72 now. LOOOOONG ago! 🙂 The reason I said “red up” with a “d” is because my mother-in-law said it was short for “ready up,” as in “get the house/kitchen/bathroom ready for company.” I have no clue, myself, because down here, we just clean the room.

        You know, even the Pittsburgh area had “regional” speech. Things that were commonly said in Millvale weren’t so common across town in Wilkinsburg. Might be that “jumbo” was a Millvale specialty. 😀 Never heard gobs used that way, though. I thought she wanted to know if you dated sailors. 😀


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