Using Dialect and Vernacular

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and the new year is off to a good start.

Regional dialect and vernacular are commonplace. Here in the United States alone, we have Appalachia, the deep south, Texas, the Midwest, and the northeast just to name a few. We speak English, but many of our sayings differ.

For instance, in Texas and many parts of the south we use the word “y’all” when referring to a group of people. People on the west coast might use the term “you guys,” and those other parts of the country are known to say “youin’s.” I’ve even heard the term “yous guys.”

Regional dialect and vernacular are what make each area unique, much like accents. I’ve found folks from New Jersey have slightly different accents than those living in the neighboring state of New York. A southern drawl is different than a Texas twang.

Texans often say, “I’m fixing to…” when they mean, I’m about to…” or “I’m going to fix dinner” instead of “I’m going to prepare dinner.” We know what we mean, but other people might not understand.

This brings me to today’s topic. Using dialect and vernacular in writing.

We all want to be true to our story’s setting, and often will insert regional dialects or sayings into our books. In my opinion, Mark Twain was a master at it. Consider these quotes from Huckleberry Finn.

“Doan’ hurt me—don’t! I hain’t ever done no harm to a ghos’. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for ’em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you b’longs…”

“Well, I warn’t long making him understand I warn’t dead. I was ever so glad to see Jim.”

Two different characters, two different voices. The author was true to each. However, some people might find these words hard to understand, particularly the first quote.

Jan Karon, author of the popular Mitford series set in the mountains of North Carolina used dialect for some of her characters.

“You ought to lay hold of ‘im sometime when he’s chasin’ you, and call th’ animal shelter,” suggested Velma.

This wasn’t hard to understand, but I had difficulty with some of her character’s verbiage.

Last year, I attempted to read a book that was set in another English-speaking country. I’ve read tons of books written in British English and I understand the difference between that and United States English. The author frequently used her country’s dialect, some of which I was able to interpret, but most of the time, I didn’t have a clue what the characters were saying. When I asked someone who lives in a neighboring country about a particular passage, she couldn’t help.

I finally gave up and the book went into the did not finish pile. A shame because otherwise, it was a good story.

Another novel I read had a character from Texas. The author frequently used the term “y’all,” a term familiar to me. However, the character often said, “y’all” when referring to a single person. This was confusing. I grew up in Texas and have never heard anyone say that word when referring to one person. I kept going back to the first of the scene thinking I’d missed other characters being in the same room.

Dialect can be a powerful tool in distinguishing characters. However, it can be overdone to the extent you lose the reader. That’s not something any author wants to do.

From the standpoint of a reader, I’d like to offer a few tips about using dialect:

  • Use it sparingly and only when necessary to distinguish certain characters.
  • Make sure you stay true to regional terminology and use it correctly. If you aren’t from that area, ask someone who knows.
  • Consider your audience. Is your readership limited to the country where your story is set, or do you have a national or international following? If the latter, readers may not understand what you’re saying.

As a writer, do you use regional dialect? As a reader, how do you feel about it? Have you ever stopped reading a book because it was too difficult to understand? Please share in the comments.

109 thoughts on “Using Dialect and Vernacular

  1. HI Joan, I do not use dialects or the vernacular when I write. I don’t like reading books that use them as it makes my understanding difficult. For stories set in South Africa, I do use local terms like bushveld and kraal which foreigners may not know. I try to give context and description and I also include a list of such words with a definition. I put this list at the front of A Ghost and His Gold but would move it to the back for any future books.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, “Yinz” was our form of y’all. however, I am not a “yinz” user. I tend to set my stories in that region and we have our own vocabulary. Nebby, slippy, jagoff, chipped ham, jumbo, dippy, pop, redd up, etc.

    I used to continue reading books because I bought them, but I don’t do that any more. If I can’t follow the book, it set it aside and move on. I refuse to waste my time any more, like everyone, we have better things we can do with it.

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  3. I really enjoy dialect done well, Joan, though now and then the author should take care to be certain it doesn’t confuse the reader. And some is overdone, definitely. Still, in general I think it adds color and depth to the character if done correctly.

    As for myself, I do enjoy writing dialect in moderation, as most of my characters are southern-born, but the only character that I use extensive dialect with is Rabbit, with his North Carolina mountain words, phrases, and grammar. I try to be sure that the responses he gets from others help make it clear what he’s talking about, if it isn’t obvious. Using the reaction of those around our characters can help readers understand the dialect better, I think. At least, that’s what I aim for.

    Very interesting post, Joan. Thanks!! 😊❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agree, Marcia. When the reader becomes confused, a writer has lost them. I love authenticity, but not to the point that no one can figure out what a character is saying. BTW, Wake Robin Ridge is coming up on my TBR list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, cool! Be gentle, though. It was my first-one, ever, and a bucket list thing, so there’s a lot going on. I like to think I’ve improved with each successive book–but then again, I also like to think I still look and feel like I did at 40, instead of almost 80. 😂😂😂

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  4. Excellent post Joan. I’m a firm believer in allowing characters to speak in the familiar ways, but like you said, it should still be pronoun correct (y’all is plural). And, I would do the same as you with a book if dialect made the conversation confusing. There’s a fine line about how far to take foreign words and expressions. 🙂

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  5. I was so happy to read that “it can be overdone” Joan, and your suggestion to use dialect sparingly. My books are set in Pittsburgh, where your – ‘Y’all,’ ‘you guys’ example would be ‘yinz’ and perhaps, ‘yinz guys’. I don’t think that expression is used anywhere out side that narrow region, and I chose to mostly avoid it, but I worried about leaving it out. I lived, briefly, in the south, and I found myself confused at times. This is a very helpful post. Thanks!

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  6. Great post, Joan 🙂 As a reader I don’t like to wade through too much local dialect. Just enough though gives a voice to the character. I rarely use it outside ny own area or what I’m familiar with. Great suggestions in using it.

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  7. I love dialect–when used properly. My grandmother on my father’s side was born and raised in Mississippi. I remember her voice and her word usage. That voice, her dialect, became the building blocks of Baby Teegarten’s voice in Jazz Baby. I tried to use it sparingly. I didn’t want go overboard. I had one person tell me she needed to look up a few words while reading the story, but most people understood. The thing about Jazz Baby, it’s not just Mississippi dialect. It’s also 1920s dialect–which often differs from words and phrases used today. As a reader, I love books that dip into dialects. When done well, it colors a story with authenticity. It allows the reader to “hear” the voices on the page. I agree with you that Mark Twain mastered the art. Faulkner is one who often overused it in some of his works. Another insightful post, Joan. That’s for igniting an interesting conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind having to look up a few words here and there. When I have to do it with almost every other page (as was the case in the book I mentioned) that ruins the story for me. Good point about 1920s dialect. People talked differently in those days.. As you said, when done right, the reader can hear the character’s voices. Thanks for your comments, Beem.

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  8. It is a tricky one. Many years ago, my uncle started reading a book set in the county of Cheshire in the UK. Much of it was in Cheshire dialect, and although he was born and bred in Cheshire, he said he couldn’t finish it.
    Also, there are some things, I find, that grate. While I know people in the south of the US use ‘y’all’, it is one of the things that irritates me. Similarly ‘anyways’. I think that writers should be aware of this and use these expressions carefully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is bad if someone raised in an area can’t understand a book. I don’t mind regional dialects if used correctly and sparingly. I’d rather make a character authentic rather than use something incorrectly. For instance, a character born and raised in Texas would use the term y’all and not “youuns.” Misuse of dialect and vernacular would turn me off from a book quicker than a word that irritates me, but that’s just my opinion. 🙂 Thanks for weighing in, V.M.

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  9. I do not use dialect too often, but the occasional character demands it. Sometimes they would not be true to themselves if they did not. But that makes it awkward…how far do you go? (Note Mae Clair’s comments above) as the characters are almost always Scottish. Yet here is where I differ from most others here. I like to be challenged, to try and interpret. One of my favorite novels is “Feersum Endjinn” and it is written almost entirely in pidgin English. Difficult to understand at first but when you get into it….well let’s just say that you have difficulty understanding normal English.
    Lol thought I would give you a couple of excerpts….

    “Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juzz been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday?”
    Ullo, Dartlin. howzit goin?
    Fine, Mr Bathcule. I bin tewibwy bizzy, u no; tewibwy bizzy bird i been. I flu thwu 2 thi paliment ov thi cwows & pikd up sum gothip, wood u like 2 here it?

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      • But this is the man in the same book that wrote. “The light was like nothing she had ever seen or even had any words for; it was at once absolutely smooth, uniform and pure, and somehow wildly various, composed of every hue there were words to describe and many more besides; it was every shade and intensity of every colour any eye or instrument ever born or made had ever been able to distinguish, and it was the utter un-colour of profound darkness too.”
        ..and…
        “Then, it was as though everything was stripped away: sensation, memory, self, even the notion of existence that underlies reality – all seemed to have vanished utterly, their passage marked only by the realisation that they had disappeared, before that too ceased to have any meaning, and for an indefinite, infinite instant, there was only the awareness of something; something that possessed no mind, no purpose and no thought, except the knowledge that it was.

        After that came a rebuilding, a surfacing through layers of thought and development, learning and shape-taking, until something that was an individual, possessing shape and capable of being named, woke.”

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  10. If I use dialect, I use it very sparingly. When an author does it well, I think it adds wonderful color to the character. An indie author friend of mine uses it frequently and is a master at it. I would say he uses it quite a bit, but it’s never distracting and never overdone. Rather, I just sink into the pages and the settings he crafts, listening to his characters chat.

    On the author hand, I have abandoned a book or two because the dialect was too heavy-handed. It’s almost always Scottish dialect that will make me toss in the towel. Authors seem to go overboard with that one.

    BTW, on the east coast we often use “you guys,” too. I still catch myself doing that!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I enjoy dialect when it’s used sparingly, and it’s easy to figure out what it means. I’ve given up on books with lots of dialect that gets tedious, or worse, dialect that I have no clue what it means. For me, dialect is used like a strong spice–just for flavor.

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  12. I use dialect sparingly. I do use native languages when someone other than an American is talking. I don’t translate the speech since it usually involves a protagonist who doesn’t understand the language. I guess I want the reader to be as confused as the protagonist in that situation. The encounters are brief in order not to wear out that confusion factor. You give great advice, Joan.

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  13. I can usually decipher US slang, but I admit to having trouble with Scottish sometimes.

    I try not to use dialect in my writing. I did in college (Pittsburgh has its own vocabulary) to some success, but I can’t imagine most readers understanding it. “I hate to be nebby, but when I was reddin’ up, I saw yer note about going to ‘Slibberty. If yinz are walkin’, probbly best you wear your tenners and watch them jagger bushes. It’s slippy out, ‘n ‘at.”

    I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to read a novel written in Pittsburgh-ese. I don’t like hearing it when I go home!

    Great post, Joan.

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    • I love your example, Staci. Nope, I would have trouble figuring some of that out. One thing we sometimes say in Texas is “Come on in,” instead of “come in.” Thankfully, my critique partners catch things like that.

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    • I have to confess, I lived in the Pittsburgh area for about two years. (My son was born at Allegheny General). I totally understood your entire example, except for “jagger” bushes. (Thorns, maybe?) Pittsburghers have more than a mere dialect going on, I think. They make up whole expressions and words, like “ear sluggers” for sideburns. But I learned how to “red up” the kitchen, and not to be “nebby” about the neighbors. And of course, I learned just how slippy it really was out, especially in the winter. My father was born there, though he lost most of his overall accent, but he did cling to a few weird pronunciations, like “howlever” for “however.”

      Thanks for the walk down Memory Lane, Staci. Haven’t thought about Pittsburghese in years! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • I try not to use it and am pretty sure I don’t (though I’m fluent). But every now and then, something slips out that makes me realize it’s deeply internalized and not entirely gone yet. (Like the tossle cap.)

        Glad to have brought you good memories, Marcia. And yes, “jagger bushes” are any with thorns. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Like you, Joan, I am most familiar with Texas slang, and I use it in my stories. I once had a reviewer comment on the use of the word “darlin'” in my story, but Texas men use that term often when addressing a woman, even if they don’t know them. While a woman tends to use the word “honey” or “hon” when addressing another woman. The story I just finished is set in Missouri. My mom used to talk about people from that area using the word “youins” instead of y’all or you all. I love local dialects, but as you also pointed out when they are understandable. Interesting post.

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  15. Great post, Joan! I agree with less is more.

    I actually use a dialect that isn’t often mentioned. It’s called The Inland Northern (aka Great Lakes) dialect. I looked this up because I didn’t know if I would explain it correctly and googles says, “One prominent feature of this accent is that the “a” sound in words like “bat” and “sad” is raised and made into a diphthong so that the words sound like “bee-uht” and “see-uhd.”

    Anyway, I sure wouldn’t put “bee-uht” in my story and expect anyone to know what that means. LOLOL

    Liked by 3 people

  16. What a great post, Joan. “You guys” is standard for me, having lived on both coasts. You nailed that one. Ha ha. I love well written vernacular, and the Twain examples were great. But I totally agree with your advice to keep it to a minimum. It makes our readers work harder and can slow down our prose. It can also draw attention to the writing and away from the story – even in Twain’s case. Excellent tips. Thanks!

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  17. I grew up in WV and then moved to SC. I’ve never used y’all, but say ‘you guys’. Have no idea why. When we moved to SC we heard the terms ‘fixin to’ and ‘carry him to the doctor’. Had no idea what these meant, especially the last one, lol. Could the person not walk? Even in KY I’ve heard unfamiliar terms or phrases and had to ask what they meant. A couple months ago I went to a book festival in Charleston, SC called Yallfest. A perfect name for that region. Great post, Joan!

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    • I know exactly what “carry him to the doctor” means. 😀 I sometimes say “you guys” as well. Once we were in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and had stopped for lunch. After our waitress took our order, she returned to the table and asked, “What part of Texas are y’all from?” She picked up on our accent because she once lived here. Although she’d lost much of her Texas twang, she told us she still said “y’all” and “I’m fixing to…”

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  18. I learned about tuque’s from Bob and Doug McKenzie. Ha! I always manage to use a bit of this in my stories. I worry that it gets to be too much, so tend to reserve it for secondary characters, like those who call in to Night Bump Radio these days. So is it tuque, toque, touque, or what?

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  19. Great post, Joan, very helpful. Multiple times I’ve written a dialogue exchange and wanted to use the local dialect but chose not to, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. And like you, if I can’t easily understand what is being said, I don’t finish the book. Time is too precious.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Funny thing, Gwen, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the term “y’all” in one of my books. Even those set in Texas. Sometimes I’ll use words like “gonna” instead of “going to.” (Depending on the character.)

      I think the key is using dialect sparingly. As Audrey pointed out, less is more.

      Liked by 2 people

  20. I’m in the UK, but i read a lot of books by American authors, so mostly I’m used to the differences. Problems arise with specific words. Tuque would defintely have left me confused, as would Beanie, Audrey.
    Joan asked about oue own writing, and I tend to use phrases tacked onto otherwise clear dialogue, know what I mean. “Know what I mean” is typical of North-East England. Characters in the poorer areas of England, especially London, are a challenge. Most authors drop “h”. Accurate but infuriating. Think about it. We use single quote marks… Personally, I pick a couple of words, to and for, and spell them ter and fer. Less is most certainly more!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Great examples, Sarah. I wouldn’t have had any trouble knowing what you mean by ter and fer. When I began reading books written by British authors, I had to get used to differences. For instance, in America, we say trunk and hood of a car, so at first I didn’t know what boot and bonnet. Once I became accustom to those terms and others, I wasn’t confused.

      Interestingly, I was over halfway finished with one of Harmony’s books when I realized the single quotes instead of double quotes. I’m not sure I could ever grow accustomed to typing that way, but it didn’t deter me from reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: Using Dialect and Vernacular | Legends of Windemere

  22. I think less is more when it comes to dialect. Just enough to give a character a distinctive voice. And if all the characters speak the same dialect, it might be better to dispense with it altogether.
    I remember a spirited discussion about the word “tuque” in one of my writing groups. I used it as we Canadians do, with reference to a knitted cap worn to keep the head warm. One of the group members was American and found the word quite mystifying. It was news to me that the world in general doesn’t know what a tuque is! I guess they’re called “beanies” or “watch caps,” or just “knitted caps” elsewhere.

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