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Word Choices—Contractions and Dialect

June 28, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 15, 2011

Writers have choice beyond choice when trying to pick the best word for a phrase or sentence.

They have to consider genre and era and character education. They must weight impact and the strength and connotation of words.

Writers have to think about word sounds, rhythm, and even the number of syllables. A word’s meaning has to be just right, shaded to create an emotion or ramp up conflict.

Writers must consider the ways a word would affect other characters and not only the one thinking or speaking it. They must manipulate words to create tension and misunderstanding between characters.

And they can’t repeat themselves very often.

So many, many choices.

Can I throw a few more at you?

Writers can choose whether or not to use contractions. And they have to decide what to do about dialect and accents.

Contractions
I find many first-time novelists don’t like contractions. They don’t want their characters to sound common or unsophisticated, so they skip the contractions to give character speech and thought a more formal tone.

Or, if they write historicals of any kind, they imagine that our contractions are too modern for characters out of history.

They aren’t.

Contractions have been around forever (or for long enough that we don’t have to worry about them for our characters). It’s quite acceptable to use contractions in both character speech and thought. Let your narrator use contractions. Let all your characters use contractions.

Your readers will appreciate the courtesy.

Reading long passages of text that don’t make use of contractions is wearying. Don’t put your readers through that.

Use the common contractions. And if you write about a time period unknown to most of us, try making up a few contractions of your own. If you do this, be logical with their construction and consistent in their use. But who’s to say that the wharf rats of Quixsar Masdii don’t contract a certain couple of words?

I do caution you to not go overboard; again, remember that you have an audience that’s coming to you with today’s experiences and modern expectations. But don’t be afraid to challenge them a bit and introduce something different in the speech of your characters.

You may, of course, want to skip contractions for a single character, perhaps one who learned the language that your characters speak as a first language as his or her second language.

In one character, such a trait can be endearing. Yet you still wouldn’t want to skip contractions if this character is a main viewpoint character, one who gets a lot of page time either speaking or thinking.  Again, the primary reason is to keep your readers interested and moving along with the story and far from frustration.

You don’t want to create any impediment to reader enjoyment or to the readers’ ability to ease through the fiction.

Use contractions—I’d, isn’t, weren’t, would’ve, and so on. Then, when you don’t use a contraction, the words will take on an emphasis they couldn’t have if all words were written without contractions. And when you want to emphasize a word that’s typically used in a contraction, consider italicizing it.

I certainly did not intend to kill my brother, Captain Anderson. And I resent you saying I did. He merely got in the way when I tried to wrap my hands around my uncle’s throat.

Real people use contractions without hesitation. Allow your fictional characters to sound real by using contractions both in their words and in their thoughts.

Dialect
At one time, writing in dialect was common.

It’s not a common practice today.

The skilled writer can give readers a sense of dialect or accent without resorting to outlandish spellings and odd constructions that have readers stopping to figure out what a character is saying.

Readers want to enjoy a story. They certainly don’t want to play language detective and figure out the meaning of a simple line of dialogue that amounts to little more than Let’s clear out of here and head home.

A cryptic message is one thing when we’re talking clues in a mystery. Cryptic wording used to describe common actions and dialogue, on the other hand, is simply annoying.

Some writers try to use misspellings to convey dialect. Yet—and I read this as a reminder somewhere, though I can’t give you the source—those who speak differently don’t spell differently; the words are the same.  So the spelling should be standard.

How, then, do you convey dialect or accent or character background?

You use word choices or phrase patterns. You play with rhythm. You make one character respond to another character’s speech pattern or accent or dialect.

Select one or two or half a dozen words that’ll identify a character’s background and accent or dialect. Or use a sentence construction or phrase pattern with recognizable accents.

Ma and Pa always did hanker for a new car. ‘Course the old truck always got us through. It sure did. That truck always got us through.

Father purchased a new car for Mother every spring. She didn’t need one, naturally. Need wasn’t an issue, not even a remote issue. But her permafrost smile cracked just a bit wider the second week of April each year.

Mom and Dad were funny about cars. He’d want to get her a new one and she’d say the family van could last a few more miles. Those few miles lasted until I was in college. And then Old Trusty went a few miles more—I took her to Ole Miss with me.

Give characters an odd word or two, words that no other character thinks or says. These words can be words the character misuses or they can be words from another language.

Once again I’ll remind you not to overuse odd or unusual words. A little goes a long way when you’re flavoring a character’s speech or thoughts. Readers will remember what you’ve told them about a character; they won’t need reminders beat into them in every scene.

You can also simply have one character comment on another character’s accent.

I twisted around at the familiar sound of a fellow Texan promising he might could see his way to buy a round for all the ravishing ladies in the bar.

Marcus watched her mouth, thinking he’d be able to decipher her drawling honeyed speech if he watched her lips form the words. But he was snared by the way those lips glistened. And he suddenly wasn’t so sure he needed to know what she was saying.

Tal Moriarty listened without showing that he listened. The stranger was from the southern rim, he was sure of it. They never could say Raschonderry, or  Moriarty, for that matter, without trilling the Rs. And the man at the checkout had been trilling obnoxiously since he ran into Layle’s Number Three Outpost Emporium, bellowing for the oupost marshall. Bellowing for Tal.

_____________________________________

The options for choosing the right word or phrase are nearly limitless. Yet we can eliminate some options simply because they don’t fit. If words don’t match the character or the genre or the time period, they don’t fit the story. If they don’t fit the emotion or the scene, find other words.

When you’re considering words for your stories, think about the use of contractions and feel free to put both standard and non-standard contractions in the mouths and thoughts of your characters.

Give thought and consideration to characters with accents or those with dialects different from your main characters. Don’t consider how they’re different from you; it’s not you, the writer, who has to adapt to an accent or dialect. Allow your lead characters to comment on the words and the accents. Make them adjust to what they hear.

Allow dialect and accents to flavor your stories for the reader, yet keep them from overwhelming that reader. Put the characters to work to deal with other characters who speak differently. Let the reader enjoy how that dealing with is accomplished.

Choose your words wisely and creatively. And give your readers a tale worth getting lost in.

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7 Responses to “Word Choices—Contractions and Dialect”

  1. Wanda H. says:

    Hi Beth,
    As usual I find reading your blog articles teaches me so much! I find myself engrossed in what you’re teaching me, yes…I said engrossed. You say everything so clearly I have no trouble following along. You remind me of my favorite class in school, English and my favorite teacher, Mrs. O’Brien. You’re a great resource in a writer’s arsenal. Thanks for another wonderful article.
    wanda

  2. Wanda, what a nice thing to say. Thank you. And it’s my pleasure.

  3. This is a great resource! I’ve found this super helpful as I explore character voice with a new narrator. Thank you!

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