Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Musings: Enriching Your Writing—Colloquialisms

The Internet has made the world much smaller. This is true especially when it comes to really seeing the differences in the word usage and slang between English speaking countries. To be honest, even within a country there is various regional slang and dialects. We can tell where a person is from by the way they speak. This is truly apparent in a country as large as The United States.

Slang doesn’t bother me so long as it isn’t in professional writing or spoken in a professional setting. Of course I tend to cringe when I hear phrases like, 'he ain't got no business coming down on me'. I tend to correct my son when I hear him use the wrong verb tense or a word in the wrong context.

The use of slang, colloquialismsand clichés can add flavor to your writing, so long as those devices aren’t over used. It can also characterize your setting and add to your characters—without getting into a bunch of backstory. The use of slang and colloquial phrases are usually confined to character speech (or inner thoughts) and not to the whole manuscript.

Not every character will speak in the same manner (and wouldn’t it be boring if they did). The big city girl comes to the country for a job or another purpose. She uses proper English in her speech but hearing the way others speak can add conflict in her perception of the people or another character she comes into contact with. She might perceive them as uneducated and this could cause her to make judgments or underestimate the other character(s). That can work both ways, of course.

There are those who don’t agree with using slang, colloquialisms, or clichés and that’s fine, but even some of the classic literary giants, if you will recall, used them.

A street-smart punk isn’t going to speak in perfect English and if the author, critique partner, or editor tries to force that on the character it will make the character flat and unrealistic. Someone from the Deep South isn’t going to use his or her words or even the same sentence structure as someone from, fill in the blank____ Maine, California, Upper Midwest, Western states, Pennsylvania Dutch country, does. Those differences can be used to give flavor to our characters and settings.

An author who does this well, in my opinion, is Carolyn Brown. She writes about people from Texas and Okalahoma in small town and ranch country. She gives richness to her stories with the use of colloquial phrases and regional slang. Her writing pops with location, setting, and realistic people. I laugh because it captures that area so well. Even if you’re not from or never visited the area it works. She doesn’t waste time defining the phrases or words she uses but the context in which they’re used is self-explanatory.

Judi Fennell is another who uses well-placed slang, colloquial phrases, and clichés. Her stories play on pop culture and so it works. In her Mer series, she doesn't waste time explaining terms like shell fillers. It’s obvious by the way she uses the term what it means. There is quite a bit of humor attached to her plots and characters and her skillful play on words only enhance her writing. Judi makes up slang and colloquial phrases to fit her world and does it well.

Neither of these authors over uses these devices but they both know how and when to use them effectively.

If you write Regencies, you automatically use syntax of the era as well as the slang. It gives the feeling of place and time. Military suspense, thrillers, or romance use slang or jargon because the military has its own terminology as does law enforcement. Someone writing sci-fi or paranormal will create his or her own world jargon and slang.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to use colloquial speech and clichés in your writing to add texture to your story so long as the terms fit and aren’t use merely as a form of laziness.
·        Do you use, colloquialisms, and clichés in your writing?
·        How do you decide when and how to use them?


Tonya Kappes said...

I do. I think language enriches the characters. You really have to be sure not to do it so much that the reader rolls their eyes and puts the book down. I really use it with one character that has a more quirky side.

Jo said...

I think you mean colloquialisms and yes, they do add flavour to writing and assist in defining the area from which the character originated.

You will find that a small country like the UK has as many, if not more regional accents and colloquialisms as the US or any other country because once upon a time they had no contact with villages just a few miles up the road prior to the age of motorised transport.

col·lo·qui·um (k-lkw-m)
n. pl. col·lo·qui·ums or col·lo·qui·a (-kw-)
1. An informal meeting for the exchange of views.
2. An academic seminar on a broad field of study, usually led by a different lecturer at each meeting.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Tonya, I agree. When properly used it enhances rather than distracts or irritates.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jo, most countries have their regional phrases. I chose to use the American point of view. English dialects and colloquial phrases are also fascinating.

Kat Sheridan said...

Slang and appropriate colloquialisms (I can never get that word right) definitely add color. But yes, care must be taken not to go overboard. I recently read something where one of the characters had a Scots accent and it truly got annoying after a while. It got to be a blinding flurry of apostrophes to indicate dropped letters and was distracting. Tell me the character is Scots, put him in a kilt, have him say "Och lassie" now and again, and that's plenty.

Laurie said...

I like slang and idiomatic speech as long as I can stay with the story, but I don't want to see it in every piece of dialogue. Sometimes just a twist of the wording is enough to hint at the different speech.

In other words, I agree with Kat.

And geez, Jo, you never made a typo? Chill out and stop being a snob.

Laurie said...

What I don't like, though, is formal speech without contractions because "that's the way they spoke."

Hahahahahahahaha! Go read Shakespeare, who littered the stage with contractions until there was no room for the actors to walk.

If the speech is jarringly modern -- for example, current slang in a Regency -- then by all means correct it. If it's not, write for today's reader, not the reader of 200 years ago.

[Rant softened by multiple smiley emoticons.]

VA said...

I like a mix. I really don't mind the degree of lingo used as long as it is consistent across the character. Something like "Clockwork Orange" is insane and strenuous to read, imo. Shakespeare cracks me up.

As far as my own personal use in writing, I generally stick to futuristic novels where I create new terms to describe the previously unknown. I feel timid using it in characterizations.

Dana Fredsti said...

I like 'em as long as the author doesn't go too far with ... er... brain fart here, the word that means you try to spell things out... er... phonetically! Dang me, my brain is slow today... At any rate, when that happens I think of Corky Sherwood in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN doing his "'enry 'niggins 'ow 'are' 'o?" routine...

~Sia McKye~ said...

To me, it's fascinating to see the jargon authors come up with when they create a world.

Dana, I like to play with syntax. You can say something in plain English without getting carried away by borrowing the cadence of the region--the way they put together their sentences.

Talli Roland said...

I think it's fine, as long as you don't get carried way with it to the point where it obscures the meaning.I quite like regional variations.

Judi Fennell said...

Hey, Sia. Jumping in late here! Thanks for the nod and liking my cliches. They're like grammar in stories: as long as you know the rules, you can break them. As long as you're admitting that they're cliches and not taking it seriously, it works.