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The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 2: Accents and dialects


Accents and dialects: spelling your way into trouble

‘Oi'm sarry to bather ye, Mam.'

‘We ‘ave ze wonderfool patisseries, no?'

‘'Ere, leave orf, will yer, I ain't dun nuffink.'

These lines are real-world examples from jobs that have crossed my desk and they are, I think, uniformly tragic. They neatly - if painfully - demonstrate the pitfalls of trying to convey accents in English prose. In this article I will explore the difficulties in writing in accents or dialects and suggest some simple ways round the problem.

We all have an accent; there is no absolutely correct way of speaking English, or any language, for that matter. I lived in Germany for some years and speak the language passably well, but some of the regional accents I encountered (Yes, I mean you, Munich arthouse comedian) were almost impossible to understand at first.

The people reading this article, and by extension reading your book, boast an impressive range of accents. Taking England alone, they might include RP (Received Pronunciation, the conventional standard accent in English), Geordie, Brummie, Cockney, Scouse, a West Country burr, an East Anglian twang, or a Mancunian lilt. Each one of these accents - and all the many others - represents a legitimate way of speaking the language. Your audience, in other words, is probably better at accents than you are.

Some non-standard English words have found their way into common usage - dunno, wanna, innit, wagwan and gimme to name a few - and they can be useful in conveying the idea of a speech community. If you want to find words of this kind, sites such as the Urban Dictionary offer a comprehensive guide. They are a useful compromise between written accents and common slang terms.

Similarly, there are plenty of resources online for dialect words and phrases. Using such words (out of whole cloth rather than re-spelling standard words) is a good indicator of a speech community. You can also look at the work of writers from those speech communities to get a feel for how dialects are expressed; a lot of Scottish writers do this particularly well - Christopher Brookmyre is a good example.

But beyond these resources, there is a minefield of possibilities, and it is a minefield that a surprisingly large number of writers, especially new writers, feel compelled to tread. I sometimes get the impression that new authors in particular feel an obligation to dismember perfectly innocent words and expressions for the sake of an imagined realism.

So, here is our first caveat: any ham-fisted attempt to render an accent is certain to evoke scorn, irritation or anger from at least some of your readers; speakers of the accent you are attempting are likely to be the harshest critics. Death threats from enraged dialect speakers do not make an ideal book review.

And that leads to our first rule of thumb: if you can't render an accent in a way that makes sense to speakers of that accent, don't do it. More broadly, consider this: how often is it imperative that you convey an accent, word for word, in a book?

There is a very simple alternative. If you want the reader to know that one of your characters is, for example, Scottish, just tell them; most readers are capable of imagining a Scottish accent, and it is probably easier for them to do so if they are not presented with a comically unsuccessful attempt to render that accent in print. The injudicious addition of ‘Och the noo' is not doing you or your readers any favours.

If you feel you have to indicate an accent or dialect in dialogue, try to act on the principle that less is better; if you can convey a language setting by contracting or adjusting one or two words, stop there and let the reader do the rest. For instance, this might serve as dialogue in Estuary English:

‘You fit, darlin'?'

‘Gimme a minute, I'm still doing me makeup.'

‘Well, get a move on, girl, I'm gagging for a beer.'
Most of the work here is done with standard words, and the accent is signalled with minimal injury to your spell checker. I would probably allow another contraction - gaggin' - here too, though it's not strictly necessary; but I would edit any attempt to render ‘girl' in the accent through alternative spelling - ‘gel' (a reasonably faithful imitation of the usage) is too easily mistaken, and ‘gell' looks crude and intrusive.

One way of conveying non-standard English without performing vivisection on your prose is to choose your vocabulary carefully. For instance, here is a piece of dialogue you could hear in an urban setting more or less anywhere in England, and the speakers will almost certainly be young:

‘This chicken is peng.'

‘Innit. You go Turnham?'

‘Fam, it has bare haters.'

‘Is it really?'

‘I swear down.'

If this appeared in a book I was editing I would probably let it pass. It may be puzzling for some readers, but if it was in a YA novel I know the target audience would understand it. (If you're wondering, ‘has' is the more common usage here, though ‘was' would seem more logical.)

Another simple strategy is to include one or two words that identify the language community, and leave the rest of the piece in conventional English. For instance, many Irish speakers have a habit of prefacing remarks with the word ‘sure' (I still do it after fifty years in England), or ending a request with ‘sure you will' or a tag clause starting with ‘so'; in spoken language these words are slightly occluded (they are given less emphasis than the main message of the statement) but in written language they offer a legitimate signal of identity. Here, one of the speakers is Irish:

‘Ciaran, are you coming or what?'

‘Sure I've to tie my laces or I'll fall on me face.'

‘Well hurry up or I'm going without you.'

‘You're a hard man, so you are.'

Finally, think about your poor editor. Have a look at the lines at the beginning of this article and imagine half a page of dialogue approached in the same way. Word's spell checker will likely have a nervous breakdown and, if you use Auto-correct software (incidentally, if you are using Auto-correct, disable it right now), a whole menagerie of exotic - and risible - alternatives are heading your way. And I, or one of my poor colleagues, will have to try and make sense of it.

So, let's list the best options in order of preference:

  • First, simply tell the reader the character has an accent; this always works
  • Second, use a well-known (but not hackneyed) indicative word or phrase; you risk cliché, but it does the job
  • Third, use minimal changes or contractions to guide the reader and let them do the rest

If you stick to these simple principles, your readers will know where they are (and they are the most important part of this whole process). And editors of a certain age will retain their hair for a precious few more years.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

The Pedant 1:how to make your editor happy 1: Dialogue tags