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Author Topic: accents and bad grammar  (Read 16442 times)

wakela

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on: May 09, 2007, 01:04:57 AM
I've heard a few times that it is usually not a good idea to write accents.

"Howdy pahdnah," he drawled, "now, jus' how'd y'all heah 'bout owah li'l 'stablishment, heah?"
No argument from me that this is painful to read.

What about people who use incorrect grammar.  I have a story knocking around in my head that takes place in a poor area of New Orleans.  Poor blacks don't use the same grammar as middle-class whites, or even poor whites, for that matter.  I'm not trying to be racist, they just don't.  So should my guy say,
"Don't you be doin' that!"
or
"Don't do that!"

I have a feeling that the answer is, as usual, "it depends."  I get that.  There are cases where one or the other is appropriate.  I also understand that it's worse to do it poorly than not at all.  In general, what do you guys think?
 



Mfitz

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Reply #1 on: May 09, 2007, 01:28:47 PM
My knee jerk gut reaction is if you are going to use dialect, pick your time and place well and you are better off skipping it all together for the most part.

Here's why-
-As a reader I know I tend to skip, or at least skim, text when I see large   chunks of non standard English.
-As a writer I've been slammed for using dialect, and told people just don't like to read it.

It's hard to write authentic dialect. If you are going to use it I think you do better to choose one or two phrases and use those to set the tone of your character's speech rather than do everything in dialcet.

I'm dealing with an Appalachian character, and even though I hear that version of American English all the time I was harder to write Appalachian dialect than I thought it would be.  After an initial thumping from my critique group I started trying to use word choice and speech rhythm to suggest the accent rather than write dialect.  Much to my surprise that  ended up sounded much more authentic on the whole.  It also really helped define my character because I spent a lot more time thinking about what words he would use to say things instead of just droppin' my "g"s  and softening all my vowels.

As far as nonstandard grammar goes, I think most people would agree it is OK in dialogue or in first person narration, if you are using it to establish something about the way a character would speak. 

If you use bad grammar because you have grammar problems yourself that's another issue :-)




jrderego

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Reply #2 on: May 09, 2007, 01:50:10 PM
I've heard a few times that it is usually not a good idea to write accents.

"Howdy pahdnah," he drawled, "now, jus' how'd y'all heah 'bout owah li'l 'stablishment, heah?"
No argument from me that this is painful to read.

What about people who use incorrect grammar.  I have a story knocking around in my head that takes place in a poor area of New Orleans.  Poor blacks don't use the same grammar as middle-class whites, or even poor whites, for that matter.  I'm not trying to be racist, they just don't.  So should my guy say,
"Don't you be doin' that!"
or
"Don't do that!"

I have a feeling that the answer is, as usual, "it depends."  I get that.  There are cases where one or the other is appropriate.  I also understand that it's worse to do it poorly than not at all.  In general, what do you guys think?
 

I dunno if I have a hard and fast rule. I try to make every speaking character have a distinctive voice and sometimes that requires regionalizing their spoken language or finding some little thing I can hang on their words to identify them. In a recent story, one of the secondary characters is described as having "an artificially thick southern accent" following the phrase "you and your weak constitution". I also have a few spots where, to differentiate her speech, I've added "Y'all" to her regular conversational style. Is it gratuitous? I don't think so. Does it round out the character a little? It sure does. In another story I write from the POV of a 13 year old girl, and pepper her speech with "Oh My Gods" and "Like" occasionally to remind the reader that the main voice is a kid, and that's how kids talk today (seriously, go to the mall and sit in the food court, like anytime, ohmygod!). I just try to use these sort of little tools sparingly.

As for grammar, poor grammar is poor grammar. I've talked to plenty of writers, some published and some not, who insist that because Steven King or Cormac McCarthy can write grammatically incorrect sentences, and both King and McCarthy are famous, bestselling authors, then they can too. I usually argue that no famous writer, probably shy of ee cummings, could get away with "stylistic misuses of grammar" until they were best selling authors. Most writers, me included, are better off working on our craft, the style will develop as those basic skills are polished and perfected.

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Mfitz

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Reply #3 on: May 09, 2007, 02:30:50 PM
[As for grammar, poor grammar is poor grammar. I've talked to plenty of writers, some published and some not, who insist that because Steven King or Cormac McCarthy can write grammatically incorrect sentences, and both King and McCarthy are famous, bestselling authors, then they can too. I usually argue that no famous writer, probably shy of ee cummings, could get away with "stylistic misuses of grammar" until they were best selling authors. Most writers, me included, are better off working on our craft, the style will develop as those basic skills are polished and perfected.

What about in dialogue?  Even educated, articulate people often use less than perfect grammar when speaking.  I know that fiction is reality perfected, but wouldn't never having characters never use incomplete sentences or slang when they speak make the dialogue stilted?



jrderego

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Reply #4 on: May 09, 2007, 02:55:49 PM
[As for grammar, poor grammar is poor grammar. I've talked to plenty of writers, some published and some not, who insist that because Steven King or Cormac McCarthy can write grammatically incorrect sentences, and both King and McCarthy are famous, bestselling authors, then they can too. I usually argue that no famous writer, probably shy of ee cummings, could get away with "stylistic misuses of grammar" until they were best selling authors. Most writers, me included, are better off working on our craft, the style will develop as those basic skills are polished and perfected.

What about in dialogue?  Even educated, articulate people often use less than perfect grammar when speaking.  I know that fiction is reality perfected, but wouldn't never having characters never use incomplete sentences or slang when they speak make the dialogue stilted?

Dialogue is a somewhat different animal. Indeed, people do not speak in proper English, and to make your characters sound more real and alive you'd write their dialogue the way people actually speak, they interrupt, they speak in run ons, and fragments. What I mean by poor grammar are actual non-dialogue sentences. That said, I wouldn't have my characters consistently speak in run on sentences, or fragments, or dialogue with incorrect subject verb agreement, etc.

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Jim

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Reply #5 on: May 09, 2007, 03:25:03 PM
I've found when I'm reading a story that the grammatical correctness of a character's speech gives an indication of that character's level of sophistication.

A guy who says, "Well, that there car o' yours ain't worth spit no more," sounds more folksy and less sophisticated than the guy who says, "Well, that car of yours isn't worth spit anymore."

As for writing out dialectical pronunciation, I think it should be done carefully, and not to more than every other word. A whole sentence written out that way can be pretty tough to sound out. Might be better to just describe the accent rather than write it out phonetically.

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JaredAxelrod

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Reply #6 on: May 09, 2007, 03:49:35 PM
It all comes down to if you can speak it.  If you can read the text aloud and it sounds natural, then go ahead and toss grammar out the window.  Human beings often don't speak in complete sentences, and we can handle reading fragments as long as there's a purpose.  As with any rule, you should have a purpose when you break it.

Say, dramatic timing.

But if you can't read the thing aloud without cutting you tongue on broken sentences (coughcormacmccarthycough), you may need to fix a few things.  The best thing to do is to trust in the eternal wisdom of Duke Ellington: "If sounds good, it is good."

As for using apostrophes to signfy accents in dialogue, it can be a nessary evil.  But like all nessary evils, its not one you want to use often.  Look at how Anne Proulx and Elmore Leonard deal with backwoods accents, with as few apostrophes as nessary.  In particular, I'm thinking of  the dialogue of Raylan Givens, Leonard's protagonist in Riding the Rap, who sounds country, but not like he's trying to talk around a mouthfull of pebbles. 

For more of a genre element, listen to how the dialogue is constructed in Firefly.  Almost every character talks in a pseudo-country patois, but each in a different way.  You could write out all of Mal's dialogue without a single apostrophe, I expect, and it'd still read like Nathan Fillian's says it.  Jayne's lines would prob'ly have an apostrophe or two, though.
« Last Edit: May 09, 2007, 09:39:15 PM by JaredAxelrod »



wherethewild

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Reply #7 on: May 09, 2007, 09:28:20 PM
Re: Grammar. If it´s done deliberately and to create a specific mood/feeling/flow, then I have no problems with its manipulation. If it pops up here and there and looks like you don´t know the language then it´ll annoy me. One of my favourite authors is Salman Rushdie and just look at what he does to the language.

Re: Accents. It can be really tough to read, so you have to have a damn good story for me to want to battle through it. Case in point: Iam M. Banks´ Feersum Endjinn. That only worked (for me) because whole chapters where written in it so I had time to get into the 'headspace' of the accent and--probably most importantly--I really, really, really wanted to read that book. If it had been any other author I would´ve dropped it.

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wakela

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Reply #8 on: May 09, 2007, 11:37:10 PM
Thanks for the tips.  Here's my take on the above:
-Outside of dialog correct grammar should always* be used.
-Writing in an accent is usually not a good idea.  It's probably better to tell rather than show in this case. "He spoke with the thick southern accent."  (sidenote:  I find the word "brogue" kind of pretentious.  For some reason "drawl" is OK.)
-Within dialog it's a better idea to pepper speech with words that suggest an accent and socio-economic-education level rather than try to accurately reproduce them.  We are trying to create a feeling, not document linguistic traits.  In my above example,
Quote
"Howdy pahdnah," he drawled, "now, jus' how'd y'all heah 'bout owah li'l 'stablishment, heah?"
"Howdy, partner, now just how did y'all hear about our little establishment, here?"
The latter gets the point across and is easier to read.

It's telling that I can't think of a better example of ebonics than "Don't you be doin' that," which is something my mom, a public school teach with many poor, black students, told me.   



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #9 on: May 10, 2007, 01:23:30 AM
If you are part of the community that you're trying to render linguistically, go for it.

If not, there are several factors at play. You're unlikely to get the grammar correct, and you're likely to play into classist and racist stereotypes.



FNH

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Reply #10 on: May 11, 2007, 07:30:59 PM
As a reader I suggest you limit this kind of text.  If I dont know the dialect I dont get it.  An incomprehensible string of misspelled words simply becomes unreadable without a context.

So if you layer in a entire sentance written in a strong South Glasgow dialect and I've never heard it I wont be able to even guess at what the characters trying to say.


hautdesert

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Reply #11 on: May 11, 2007, 07:54:11 PM
Repressing the urge to rant, I will post a brief post.

A) mild "dialect spelling" and using rhythm and word order can, nine times out of ten, do the job without making life harder than it needs to be for the reader, in my experience and opinion.

B) "Dialect" does not, in any circumstances, equal bad or incorrect grammar.

C) If you read a big name author and come across something that you consider to be bad or incorrect grammar, you might want to reconsider just how you're arriving at the conclusion that the writer (and the editor, and the copyeditor) was in error.  The laundry list of "rules" elementary school teachers drill into students are not comprehensive, are devoid of nuance, and in a number of cases are demonstrably wrong.  Please do not make me unpack my "prepositions at the end of sentences and split infinitives" rant, and it won't be a pretty sight if I get started on singular they.

To summarize, one could do worse than read Language Log on a regular basis.

edited to fix the Language Log link, sorry.
« Last Edit: May 12, 2007, 01:13:13 PM by hautdesert »



Listener

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Reply #12 on: May 11, 2007, 08:34:21 PM
As a reader I suggest you limit this kind of text.  If I dont know the dialect I dont get it.  An incomprehensible string of misspelled words simply becomes unreadable without a context.

So if you layer in a entire sentance written in a strong South Glasgow dialect and I've never heard it I wont be able to even guess at what the characters trying to say.

In "My Enemy My Ally" by Diane Duane, she writes a few chapters on the Romulan (Rihannsu) ship with all the dialogue in Rihanha (Romulan).  The POV of Ael, written in English, makes it understandable.  I always liked the idea of doing that -- don't stop to explain unfamiliar terms if you can get the gist of it by reading around them.

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #13 on: May 11, 2007, 08:36:38 PM
Quote
"Dialect" does not, in any circumstances, equal bad or incorrect grammar.


Can we hear an amen?



Roney

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Reply #14 on: May 12, 2007, 12:17:40 AM
So if you layer in a entire sentance written in a strong South Glasgow dialect and I've never heard it I wont be able to even guess at what the characters trying to say.

Not to mention that you'll never make any money writing for the weegie book-buying market.  (Only joking, of course: Glasgow's a very cultured city.  But that was just too easy.)

One thing to bear in mind is that even speakers of a dialect will often find a phonetic rendering difficult to interpret.  Certainly in the UK the tradition is for accents to be written down in the way that a naive speaker of Received Pronunciation (RP) English might hear them.  (If you don't know RP, a reasonable modern SF reference would be Gaius Baltar in the current BSG.)  But a reader with, say, a strong Yorkshire accent* gives that accent to words spelt in the standard English way.  To understand the phonetic version they first need to imagine how a reader with an RP accent might render the sounds, then map them onto the closest equivalent in a real Yorkshire accent, then figure out what the words were meant to be.

If anything it's more difficult because instead of just trying to understand someone else's accent, they've got to try to understand how someone with a different accent might understand their accent.

Scots don't have it so bad because there are plently of dialectal words known outside the country that can be used to indicate the character's nationality.  Slip in "Och, ah skelped ma haggis" or some such every few pages and it will be clear enough.  Try that with Cornish or Yorkshire words, though, and it'll go straight past the majority of readers.  So the (largely London-based) British literary establishment tries to capture the amazing diversity of English regional accents by torturing five little vowel letters into forms they were never meant to take.

Honestly, it's best just left alone.

*Any suggestions for a Yorkshire accent that an international audience might be familiar with?  I'd say Sean Bean but he toned it right down for Lord of the Rings.  And Patrick Stewart's had a theatre accent for so long now that I'd swear he has to put on his Yorkshire when he pretends to slip back into it.



ClintMemo

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Reply #15 on: May 12, 2007, 12:23:20 AM
Quote
"Dialect" does not, in any circumstances, equal bad or incorrect grammar.


Can we hear an amen?

Sure, but which dialect?
Would you like my Kentucky amen (rhymes with Hay men) or my Massachusetts amen (rhymes with Aw men)?

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hautdesert

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Reply #16 on: May 12, 2007, 01:08:40 PM
Quote
"Dialect" does not, in any circumstances, equal bad or incorrect grammar.


Can we hear an amen?

Sure, but which dialect?
Would you like my Kentucky amen (rhymes with Hay men) or my Massachusetts amen (rhymes with Aw men)?

Either would be correct, of course.  :) 

Here in the Midwest it's either "Ah-men" like Ramen, or Ay-men.  In this context, the Ay-men would be more likely.



Anarkey

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Reply #17 on: May 12, 2007, 03:29:58 PM
There are people here who have vastly more writing experience than I do, so it's possible my advice is less than ideal, but I like to use the "telling detail" approach to dialect.  That is, to throw in clues about dialect in the same way I'd throw in clues to backstory, characterization, whatever.  I don't think dialect needs to be exactly and faithfully rendered to the last detail, just some nods will suggest it, while conveniently keeping it readable.

Which nods you choose, of course, should probably be made with as much care as you'd take with any other telling detail, and its worthwhile considering palimpsest's post about playing into stereotypes.  Otherwise you end up in the Marvel universe, where Gambit has to keep mixing in some French to remind you he's Cajun.

I use this same approach with multi-lingual inclusions, but iirc correctly from the pet peeves thread, that would drive you bonkers, wakela...so maybe a grain of salt.

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #18 on: May 13, 2007, 12:11:43 AM
IMO, telling details are great.

But yes, if they're the wrong telling details on something like regional dialect, your credibility's blown. (See the contest entry where I tried to render German grammar via Yiddish grammar...)



Michael

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Reply #19 on: May 16, 2007, 10:33:35 AM
It can certainly work--Heinlein's greatest book "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" was written entirely in Loonie--a patois of English, Australian, Russian and Chinese, with totally unique grammar throughout.  It won the Hugo, Nebula and the Locus Poll Award All-time Top 10 novels ranked it #2 among novels published before 1990.  You had to get into the language to read the book, and there was something magic in that. 


FNH

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Reply #20 on: May 17, 2007, 08:56:59 PM
It can certainly work--Heinlein's greatest book "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" was written entirely in Loonie--a patois of English, Australian, Russian and Chinese, with totally unique grammar throughout.  It won the Hugo, Nebula and the Locus Poll Award All-time Top 10 novels ranked it #2 among novels published before 1990.  You had to get into the language to read the book, and there was something magic in that. 

Cripe!  I'd forgotton about that book, must have read it twenty years ago.  That proves that it CAN work.  However I still wouldn't want to risk one of my stories knowing that it MIGHT work.