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Thread: FAQ: Writing with an Accent or using Dialect

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    FAQ: Writing with an Accent or using Dialect

    Writing In Dialect: Some Definitions

    While it’s very common to hear people refer to regional differences in pronunciation as an accent, technically the correct term is dialect. Dialect differences include not only pronunciation, but perhaps even more importantly, vocabulary and idiom.

    General Guidelines about Writing In Dialect

    • Don’t attempt to write in a dialect that you're not very familiar with, unless you have native speakers (or historic experts) double-check you.
    • Rely less on phonetic spellings and more on idioms, vocabulary, and syntax.
    • Don’t over-do it. Don’t frustrate your reader; this is especially true about using phonetic spelling.
    • Dialect is a seasoning; applied too liberally it will detract from your story.

    Writing In Dialect

    Tom Chiarella for Writer’s Digest: How to Give Your Character an Authentic Dialect

    Most people assume that dialect has to be a part of dialogue. My answer is that it can be, and in certain circumstances it ought to be, but the writer must never feel compelled to duplicate dialects simply for the sake of “authenticity.” The writer who thinks she is writing dialect because she is clipping the ends off of words and stretching out others is often taking delight more in her own experimentation than in any real sense of story. She may be shooting for a folksy charm or for a root authenticity, but most often she fails miserably. Try all you want to make the words unrecognizable—misspell them, cut them in half, throw in a fistful of apostrophes, sound out every groan the character makes—but the truth is, they are still words you’re dealing with.
    Kai Ashante Wilson for Tor.Com The POC Guide to Writing Dialect In Fiction

    Arlene Prunkl for Penultimate Dialogue in fiction: Part I – How to write authentic dialects and foreign accents

    Be conservative. You don’t need to spell out every diphthong and dropped “g.” Less is more. Whatever combination of techniques you use to render an accent or dialect in dialogue, use them with a light hand. It’s tempting, because it’s easiest, to write a dialect or accent phonetically, but if you overdo this, you’ll confuse, bore, insult, or possibly even lose your readers.

    speech patterns shouldn’t dispose among protagonist, secondary and tertiary characters such that those using low-prestige dialects read primarily as wretches, fools, or scoundrels. Beauty, genius, and heroism—all the trappings of full humanity—should appear at least as broadly and profoundly among speakers of low-prestige dialects as among those speaking high.
    Debbie Taylor for The Guardian: A difficulty with dialect.

    Roy Peter Clark for Poynter: The Problem of Dialect. See also his Dialect Lessons from the Masters.

    Dialect Resources

    The International Dialects of English Archive
    Primary-source recordings of English-language dialects and accents as heard around the world. With roughly 1,400 samples from 120 countries and territories, and more than 170 hours of recordings, IDEA is now the largest archive of its kind.
    British Library Accents and Dialects

    The Speech Accent Archive
    The speech accent archive uniformly presents a large set of speech samples from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and non-native speakers of English read the same paragraph and are carefully transcribed. The archive is used by people who wish to compare and analyze the accents of different English speakers.
    Library of Congress: American English Dialect Recordings from The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection


    There are historic language dictionaries like The Oxford English Dictionary, a very large multi-volume dictionary that shows how and when words were used in written English, from Old English to current English. Most libraries have a copy, and many offer it online.

    Many dictionaries indicate if a particular word is used differently in different dialects. The American Heritage Dictionary often has a Usage Note regarding dialect uses and archaic uses.

    Look for dictionaries from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc. to see if words have the same meaning elsewhere.

    Use online public domain book archives for older dictionaries, including specialized dictionaries of historic slang (or "cant") like the 1860 A Dictionary of Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words available at

    Check newspapers and periodicals for how words and expressions are used. Don’t overlook the resources of your local public libraries, especially for older dictionaries and periodicals.

    Previous AW Threads About Dialect

    Using A Local Dialect

    Using Dialects and Accents

    How to describe an accent in a world where that place doesn't exist

    Advice on Accents

    Phonetic Dialogue


    Dialect: can one have too much?

    Writing in a Southern Accent: Authorial Intrusion?

    Books Using Dialect Effectively

    * PM me suggestions! I’m especially looking for non-U.S. examples.

    Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. Burgess essentially invented his own dialect, and at points, it's almost impossible to follow.’
    Doyle, Roddy. The Commitments. Dublin Irish English.

    Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Absalom, Absalom. Pretty much everything. Mississippi.

    Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Ohio African American.

    O’Connor, Flannery. Pretty much any of her short fiction will provide ample examples, as will her own letters and essays. Georgia.

    Parker, Robert. Any of the Spenser novels will especially provide ample examples of Boston dialects, and general New England speech patterns.

    Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (And lots of others, including short fiction). Twain has a note in his preface that he deliberately wrote in dialect, specifying “the Missouri Negro dialect, the extremest form of the backwoods southwestern dialect, the ordinary Pike County dialect, and four modified varieties of this last.” Hucklebery Finn is frequently touted as a model of writing in dialect, but it's not necessarily a good model. Jim's dialect is more music-hall in some respects than authentic; it’s also inconsistent. I'd suggest instead, looking at Twain's newspaper columns and letters.

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