Slang and Colloquial Speech

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So – slang. What is it? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is “informal nonstandard vocabulary”. In this post I take it to mean text that is riddled with idiomatic, nonstandard language signifying a specific regional or economic background.

Whilst it can add colour to your writing, it’s all too easy to overuse slang, and my advice is to use it sparingly. Rabbie Burns got away with it (or did he?) in his works, as did D H Lawrence and a host of others known for using nonstandard speech patterns to lend ‘flavour’ to their writing. You can quickly create a sense of an individual’s character by slipping in some slang or ‘specialised’ language.

But for the reader nothing is more exhausting than having to go back and reread a passage over and over again to try to find the sense of nonstandard text. Vernacular can make your writing dense and unclear as the reader struggles through a succession of unfamiliar words and phrases that disrupt the flow of your epic work. Also consider whether you are actually demeaning or weakening a character by introducing slang or colloquial speech into their dialogue. Do you want them to be seen as Cockney Number Two, a stock character, or as a realistic individual?

I fell foul of this myself when creating a character in my book Criss Cross, Mrs Hopkins aka Mrs H, a housekeeper/cook  is a Londoner of working class background. I piled lots of slang and colloquialisms into her speeches which not only was akin to throwing obstacles in the path of my readers, but also made my character appear foolish and a mere caricature, which was not appropriate as she was to become an important member of the ‘cast’ of my trilogy.

I queried it with Mrs H as soon as she presented me with the bill.

‘He found nothing?’

‘Nuffink at all, Mrs Powell, not so much as a sniff of a mouse or rat.  He were ‘ere a good hour hand a ‘arf.  Very furrow, I must say.’

Maybe that wasn’t too bad, a bit tricky though, but later:

‘That’s why I’m always ‘ere.  I don’t know ‘ow I fort we’d get away wiv it, but I just ‘oped …  I mean, you’ve got a lot of room up in the attic, and not much up there.  So when the bank repossessed our ‘ouse a month ago, we jus’ fort, I mean, we know it’s wrong, ‘course we do, but we were desperate.’

But she couldn’t go on talking like this and still be taken seriously as a fairly main character, so I had to ditch a lot of the slang later on. After all we don’t want her to sound like she’s just stepped out of the original film version of Mary Poppins, do we? By the way, no one apart from Dick Van Dyke talks about ‘plates of meat’ or ‘apples and pears’. Please, if you’re not cockney yourself, don’t try to make others that way. Leave it in the hands of the professionals.

In my mind, the slang and colloquial speeches of Mrs H – and later Mr H – reflected the way they themselves were viewed by my main character, and as her respect and affection for them grew, so their speech changed until the nonstandardness of their dialogue disappeared completely. In my mind! Sadly this ‘clever’ idea remained deeply entrenched in my mind. In the minds of my readers, however, it was just pointless, annoying and inconsistent. So I had to revise some of the worst examples whilst leaving a few little snippets in for flavour, without overwhelming the reader or turning every conversation between those characters into a lesson in deciphering some strange code.

And speaking of inconsistencies…next week I’m going to talk a little more about that very thing!

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