American English, Language Corruption, and Authenticity

American English. What's that?

American English. What’s that?

Although it was many years ago, I can recall my mother correcting my grammar. Ain’t was not a word that was tolerated, even though I heard it all around me growing up in the Deep South. Them was, rather than those were, he done gone, rather than he has gone. All around me were horrible corruptions of the English language.  There were many other words and phrases that I mispronounced and she was quick to correct.

Mama did a good job. All through junior high and high school, I was commended for being so very articulate. English teachers used me as an example and encouraged me to write. My papers always received good grades. After school, when my sister and step-sister were practicing for drill team and playing in the band, I was sitting in the back of the library reviewing all of the National Geographic magazines from 1875 to 1972, and reading the classics.

When I went to college, again, my English lit professors and composition professors were impressed. That’s not saying so much though. You have to remain aware of where I was coming from.  People in the Deep South have always had their own way of speaking and I am not simply talking about dialect. We had our own words for things. Many of these words came from colonial English.

We wore britches instead of pants or trousers. Under those, we had our bloomers on. And phrases; we did not come inside, we had to get inside. We did not have our breakfast on the plate we had it in the plate, and we sat in the floor, not on the floor.

This was the language I was surrounded by for twenty years before college.

My human anatomy and physiology professor, Dr. William Birkhead, got me good one day. He came out to our farm and tagged rat snakes in our chicken house to see if they homed in to a food source or homed in to mate.  When he was out on the farm, he spoke like all the other country folk around. He seemed like one of us.

Then there was the language he used in the classroom. It was much different. When tests were over, we always reviewed the answers in class. One of our questions was to name the five main functions of skin. I thought I had them all correct, but he marked one wrong and I could not understand why.

1.Maintains the body’s integument.

2.Regulates body temperature and maintains homeostasis.

3.Eliminates wastes

4.Produces vitamin D.

5.Gathers information about its environment. (sensory)

My first answer was, “Holds the innards inside.”

Seriously…”innards”

I was the laughing stock of the class. My uneducated, farm girl, southern roots were showing.

Often, when I am writing my regional character’s dialogue, I allow them to slip back into these old countrified, southern roots. Even today, living in the city, the lousy use of the English language is all around me, mixed with Spanglish, Creole and Patois. This corruption is everywhere. No one I know speaks formal English.

When I am writing a character that is southern or influenced by the corruption, it can come across that the writer doesn’t understand the correct use of language. I have to be ultra-careful to keep the narrative correct, else it comes across that the writer doesn’t understand proper use of the language. It appears to be bad writing.

American English is constantly evolving. I want my regional southern fiction to come across as authentic. There is a very fine line between permitting a regional colloquialism to stand in a manuscript and writing poorly. I have to remind myself that it is the perception of the reader that is critical, not the perception of the writer.

Do you use strictly formal English in writing?

Do you encounter colloquialisms that influence your work or writing style?

When you run across a local colloquialism in reading, does it throw you a curve and jerk you out of the story?

58 thoughts on “American English, Language Corruption, and Authenticity

  1. I love this, and I think it adds a lot to the characters. It tells me something about them without pages of exposition and backstory. I have a character in Wild Concept that says “gots” instead of has. I did this on purpose.

  2. It depends on what I am writing… When I write as myself, I write as I speak … though without the accent!…and, being a Yorkshire lass, I see nothing wrong with innards 😉 Properly contained, of course.

  3. I think languages are very organic and should change as time progresses. After all, we have dead languages because they simply stopped getting used and never adapted. At least I think that’s part of the reason it happened. Every region seems to have its own dialect and colloquialisms, so one can’t always say a person is right or wrong. Just different. I’m reaching the point where I think the important thing is that you understand what is being said. If you don’t then just ask politely instead of trying to correct the other person. Unless they’re a close friend and you want to do some playful ribbing.

    As far as my books go, I don’t write in Earth. I don’t really know if my opinion on language really counts here because I just use my own method of talking. I can’t write accents without feeling stupid or getting frustrated with the spellchecker. So I try to focus more on the ‘fanciness’ of the words and how often a character conjugates. Not really advanced and I’ve been called out on my ‘modern’ talking style in a genre that is ‘supposed’ to be Old English.

    • Readers are sometimes very particular about their expectations. If it is not written like they would have written it, they can be brutal. My series has several uneducated people in it. I think if I tried to formalize their language it would come across as very unauthentic. Yet, I risk sounding like an uneducated writer.

      • Yeah. Never really understood that level of pickiness since every person has their own perspective. Sure that’s just a vocal minority though.

        I do think language is a bigger mountain to climb for authors who use Earth as the setting. You need to factor in regional dialects when you pick a location, which is something a lot of people don’t realize. I remember in college, some fellow authors got annoyed when I had noblemen talk without contractions. They said it came off as haughty and elitist . . . yeah.

        • I have one really pretentious character. He has a strong sense of entitlement. He’s gay and flamboyant. He would never use contractions. One of my beta readers was really annoyed by him. Thank goodness he only had one chapter, huh?

            • He’s not supposed to be a likable character…but maybe I came across a little too strong on that point. I’m thinning out some of his speech and toning him down just a bit, but I don’t want to lose his character in the process.

                • Exactly. My character being in the third chapter and being so off-putting, might cause people to stop right there and not wish to read more. Especially if they think they might have to plow through more of him further in the novel.

  4. Very interesting! I admit that, yes, when I come across a colloquialism I’m unfamiliar with, it does take me out of the story. But only long enough for me to ask myself “Why is this phrase used?” If it makes sense within the context of the story, I’m cool with it and I hop right back in. That happened to me a lot when I was reading the first Harry Potter book, just due to the abundance of British terminology I’d never heard before. But once I got used to it, no problem! I think the issue arises when a book is written in formal English, and then a random colloquialism pops up in the narrative and is then never seen again. It just breaks the flow of the piece.

    • That’s exactly where I came into a problem with my last WIP. I had used a fairly sophisticated tone in most of the narrative writing, but then dropped a colloquialism or two and those weren’t well received. Slang is another issue. If the reader doesn’t use it, and you put it in the narrative, it can be off-putting.

      • And it’s tricky when it’s slang you’ve grown up with and everyone uses, because you don’t even realize it’s not commonly known until someone points it out to you. Same goes for pronunciation — I spent most of my childhood pronouncing the word “disciple” as “diss-ih-pull”, since I thought it came from the word “discipline”. Then somewhere in high school my teacher heard me, laughed, and corrected me. I still prefer my pronunciation, but sometimes you just gotta conform 🙂

        • That’s cute, diss-ih-pull. I would have to do a double take if I saw it written that way. It is a real challenge for authors to achieve authenticity without coming across as poor writers.

  5. ‘Innards’ – loved that, Susan!

    When writing dialect, I try to write it as the person in my head would ‘speak’ it. I throw away the idea of good grammar and precise speech. People do not ‘talk’ as if they are language professors… unless they are Professor Henry Higgins. 🙂

    It’s a tricky wire to balance upon, however. I’ve seen some writers go overboard and make the writing almost incomprehensible or distracting in their quest to write authentic dialect.

    Good post.

    • I have seen that also. It becomes forced and stilted when not done well. In Red Clay and Roses, I was very careful to have Moses use old Negro speak, but also took care not to be disrespectful to the culture he was from by overdoing it. I wrote it more like I actually heard it. Those three chapters were the most challenging in the novel. I had to turn off all of the spell and grammar checks and take special care to be consistent.

  6. This is a great post, SK. At this point in my writing, I’ve only used strict formal English. I’ve read where you shouldn’t use slang words or phrases that could date your novel, since they are ever evolving. What means one thing to one generation, may not to the next.
    I’m not a fan of colloquialisms since I’m easily jerked from a story. My family is all from West Virginia and that’s where I was born…I know all about innards. 🙂

    • Ooo…you would not like my writing. I have urban slang in the narrative of my new regional Florida series, and southern colloquialisms are all over my last book. To me, strict formal English comes across as too stale and dry. I have heard that you need to use it though, if you want your piece to be timeless. I see that purpose more for literary fiction but most genre fiction is not expected to be timeless.

      • Well, no doubt you use colloquialisms in the proper context in your writing, SK. When I’m jerked from the story it’s usually been used improperly or doesn’t fit the character. I’ve only read about not using slang, but I didn’t mean I don’t think it’s appropriate. Slang can often add depth to the characters and provide the reader with a better sense of personalities. I plan to read Red Clay and Roses and I know I’ll love it. 🙂

        • I have had to pull a few lines out of my current WIP because they just didn’t fit the context of the situation. The situation was rather formal and the colloquialism didn’t seem appropriate. In general though, naked Alliances is full of slang and colloquialisms. Not so much slang in RC&R. Mostly Moses with his old Negro speech.

  7. The business of dating a book if slang is used kind of ticks me off. If a story takes place in the 50’s, why not use words that were popular. Sign of the times and all that. Your characters dress for the times, cook, play, do with or without a car or a television. It’s all set in the time, isn’t it.
    Didn’t Dickens or Shakespeare use the words of the times? This is an interesting topic. ❤

  8. This can be a tricky area, can’t it? It’s important to have authentic sounding dialogue and narrative, yet we don’t want to overdo it. I’ve steered away from this so far, but my current WIP has a Haitian character so I’ll have to sort this out. I’m still in early drafts so I haven’t put too much focus on it yet, but I’ll need to when I get to the next go-through.

  9. Colloquialisms are usually not jarring to me especially if I encounter them in dialogue. i enjoyed the first part of your post which sounds to me very like “Evolution of a Southern Writer” or maybe “Evolution of a Writer in the South.” Something like that.

  10. Where I live we all sound like a bunch of farmers, and I’m very careful that doesn’t slip into my writing 😀 But still, if I try too much then it can sound like my writing is being a bit poncy! It’s a fine line sometimes!

  11. I had a conversation about this very thing at a dinner party last weekend. One woman was saying that she could hardly get through “The Help” for this reason. I hadn’t had any issue, but gave up on Rudyard Kipling after a few pages. It’s interesting. And yes– lots of horrible English around me… my posh and stuck up father would constantly correct my grammar and diction but I think I’ve let it slide in the last few years. Perhaps a last act of rebellion 😉

    • Being a lifelong rebel I can relate to that. I know my spoken grammar is not correct and it smacks of corruption, but I write well. Then again, when I am writing my wacko Florida characters, some of that wacko Florida language shines through. I hope it’s not too difficult for readers, but I did have a beta reader from the Caribbean tell me my Jamaican dude’s patois was almost to thick for her. Ugh!

  12. Our characters have to be themselves and speak their own language. Of course, it isn’t necessary to use every colloquialism an actual person might use. The reader will get the point even if the author uses a light touch. Sometimes I find myself hearing the accent of a character as I read, and I wonder why. When I look back, I find that it’s only a few subtle things that have done the trick.

  13. I would think your characters voices have to sound authentic. It would be very weird to have a character who is uneducated and who would probably speak in some kind of dialect to instead speak in formal English. What about Faulkner’s works (for an extreme example :)? I think it’s most effective to have some slang and colloquialisms, but not go overboard, if it becomes difficult to read (unless the character is supposed to be unintelligible).

    Since I write non-fiction, I always use formal English. And for my test writing, I have to be extra careful not to use words that are strictly American English, unless they’re very well known. I would say “mobile phone,” for example, instead of cell or cell phone.

    • With non-fiction I can see having to be super careful. That’s something you really want formal or you lose your credibility.

      Even with fiction, it comes across as poor writing if overdone.

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