Writing Accents and Dialects
How to add character without offending.
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When writing for a character who speaks a nonstandard dialect, in addition to dealing with the spelling question, you have to be sure to get the grammar right. The phrase nonstandard grammar may sound like an oxymoron, but nonstandard varieties of English are also governed by rules. After all, for communication to happen, there must be collectively agreed upon rules underlying all language.
The majority of grammar rules for someone's native dialect, whether standard English or a nonstandard variety, aren't taught in school; instead, they are formulated unconsciously at a very early age based on patterns in the surrounding speech.* Even before children start school, they are able to form complete sentences; they use suffixes to make nouns plural and to make verbs past tense; they invert word order to form questions; and they negate sentences with no and not. And, while we might not be consciously aware of all of these rules and can't explain why a sentence "sounds wrong," we still recognize a grammatical error.†
The same is true for speakers of nonstandard dialect. If an author writes dialect dialogue that violates the internal rules, at best the character will sound inauthentic, at worst the writer will be criticized for stereotyping or presenting a caricature. For example, speakers of African American English add the word be before a verb to indicate that the action is habitual or ongoing. The sentence He be sleeping on the couch means 'he sleeps on the couch on a regular basis', while He sleeping on the couch means 'he's sleeping on the couch now.' People trying to imitate African American English in speech and writing often overuse this grammatical form, which linguists call "habitual be." Instead, they insert it in front of verbs throughout without realizing their mistake.
To sum up, if you’re going to write in dialect, make sure you know the rules of that dialect so you don’t insult your readers and be conscious of how nonstandard spelling and dialect might influence your readers’ opinions of your characters and of you as the writer.
Also, thanks again to Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech, for writing today's episode.
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*Infants, even before they have the ability to speak themselves, recognize the patterns in the speech around them. Studies have shown that infants will respond negatively to speech that deviates from the rules they have internalized from the patterns they’ve experienced. It is these rules that they eventually use to generate their own speech, and as they begin to speak, these rules are further refined through trial and error. These rules are mostly unconscious, and it is these rules we continue to use into adulthood to form the majority of our speech.
†If we all start school already equipped with the majority of grammar rules, what are we learning there? First, we learn how to talk about language; we learn the name and function of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., and how they go together. Second, we learn rules that resolve grammatical issues that are in transition. For example, for better or worse, the use of whom is disappearing. Therefore, it isn’t possible for children to pick up on the patterns of who and whom because they aren’t sufficiently exposed to their usage. So the who vs. whom rule must be taught. Finally, we learn the rules for formal and written speech that differ from the rules we’ve picked up from everyday speech. Many things are permissible in everyday speech that are not permissible in writing.
1. Conrad, E. “The Philology of Negro Dialect.” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1944, pp. 150–54.
2. Carkeet, D. “The Dialects in Huckleberry Finn.” American Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3, Nov. 1979, pp. 315–32.
3. Sewell, D. “Dialect.” In The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and J. Wilson, 219–20. New York: Garland, 1993.