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The Danger of the Overuse of Proper English in Dialogue

Posted by Charles Gray on February 3, 2014

It’s pounded into our heads by generations of English teachers. “Ain’t” is never to be used, no matter what.  You must avoid run on sentences.  Fragments are the work of the devil and will lead to you being cast down to poor student hell.  Every paragraph must have a topic sentence, etc, etc.

The problem is that people don’t talk that way, at least not many of them.  If you’re writing dialogue, you have to consider how it would sound.  In many cases, painfully correct speech sounds quite strange if you say it out loud.  People use incorrect grammar all the time when they talk.  This is especially true when something stressful is happening. A police officer who is being shot at isn’t going to use complete sentences, and someone who is terrified is going to be lucky to remember  to put a subject in the sentence.

But what does that mean for the writer?

First of all, remember that here we are talking about dialogue. Not descriptive text.  Your characters may speak confusingly, but you as the author should never follow their example. Readers will accept character dialogue, but if they see the same errors in your descriptive text they will be far less forgiving.

Secondly, people tend to have certain speech patterns they keep to.  So if a character isn’t using proper English, it’s a good idea to think about what type of errors he or she is making and why.  Then try to fit them into the character’s overall personality.  A hyperactive individual who is always bursting with thoughts may very well speak in run on sentences.  In this case, the way he or she speaks reinforces the impression of them you want the reader to form.  But if there’s no common theme running through the character’s speech, it will feel more like we’re not seeing a character attribute as much as we are seeing the work of a lazy author.

So, when considering the use of proper English for your characters remember the following points:

  • People do not always use proper English when they speak.
  • Sometimes, the use of quirks in a person’s speech can be an excellent way to help flesh them out as a character.
  • However, as an author, you should always use proper English in your descriptive text.
  • When you have a character use improper English, YOU (the author) should always have a reason for doing so.

If you keep to these rules, you’ll likely see a better end product, even if you ain’t always keeping to the proper writing style.





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