Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dontcha Know and Other Vernacular Issues for Writers

by Cat Woods

Minnesota Speaker 1 according to the world: So, yeah, dad and me, we went down ta da park de udder day fer a bite ta eat. It was a fer piece, dontcha know.

Minnesota Speaker 2's illogical response that the rest of the world believes happens in every conversation: Ooofdah, dat is a fer piece.

Now, I get that I'm not "from Minnesota" in the traditional sense. I was made in Japan, born in Seattle and attended seven different schools on the west coast before settling into the great Midwest in the fourth grade. I've been a minority. I was in Washington when Mount Saint Helens blew and didn't realize that seeing the ocean was a big deal because I swam in it every weekend.

And maybe my varied childhood makes it hard for me to swallow the Fargo-esque vernacular that everyone else in the world believes is how all Minne-sooooo-tans speak. Or maybe it's so unpalatable due to the overuse of this vernacular in every portrayal of the Midwest. Either way, I despise this hacked-up version of our language as much as Southerners probably hate seeing "howdy" in every fictitious conversation involving them.
  • Truth #1: Every living, breathing person in Minnesota does not say "ooofdah". After residing here for nearly 30 years, I still don't have a feckin' clue what that word means. It only serves to conjure up visions of stodgy, old grandmas in their housecoats and hair rollers leaning to the side of a stained and lumpy couch and letting one rip before uttering the word that is equally grotesque.
  • Truth #2: Yes, Minnesota speakers are lazy language users. We "ta" and "fer" all day long. As a speech coach it drives me absolutely batty, and we actually practice correct enunciation during warm ups before competition. "To. To. For. For." I think this should be recited along with the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary schools each morning--and I'm only half joking. 
  • Truth #3: Vernacular is a cool way to show character, place or time in writing. But, it can also kill a piece.
Grammar Girl has two fabulous articles on her blog discussing the hows and whens of writing slang and writing dialect, both of which make up the everyday language of certain populations at any given time. Her recommendation is to use such things sparingly and mostly in dialogue.

For instance, "Groovy" quickly places someone (beach bums or druggies?) in the 1970s--although I've only ever heard one Minnesota, college-educated man use this word, and that was in the late 2000s. Use of this word in a current novel could be used to effectively date the story, or to show an intriguing aspect of someone's character--aka the attorney from above.

A delightfully, unexpected example of how to use vernacular showed up in my inbox this morning from Chick Lit Goddess, Isabella Louise Anderson. Her blog post delivers an excerpt from a novel, Dear Carolina, that highlights two very different character voices. From this short plug for a beautiful sounding story, we catch a glimpse of how writers can effectively show social status, education and experience through simple language usage.

But what should writers do about words or phrases or even geographic differences that are nearly impossible to use without confusing a handful of readers or overburdening the majority of our audience with boring explanations?

Conversation 1
  • I once used the word sneakers to describe my MC's shoes. A critique partner from a few states away asked, "What's a sneaker?"
  • "Tennies."
  • "A tennis shoe."
  • "But your MC isn't playing tennis. They are called athletic shoes."
  • * yeah right. Jimmy slipped on his ATHLETIC SHOES, tied them and headed outside to play. not*
Conversation 2
  • "Come over tonight for some taverns."
  • "So, we're going to the bar for dinner after meeting at your house?"
  • "I think she means sloppy joes."
  • "Aren't they called BBQs?"
  • "Nah, they're just shredded beef sandwiches, dontcha know."
  • "I'll bring the pop."
  • "I like Coke."
  • "I don't do drugs, but I'd love a soda."
  • *i'm ready for coke after this conversation*
Conversation 3
  • He climbed in his pickup and headed down the street.
  • Collaborator 1: Only farmers drive trucks. A teenager would never drive a truck. Especially to school.
  • Collaborator 2: This story takes place in the Midwest. Everyone drives trucks here. Even business professionals drive trucks.
  • Collaborator 1: Not here. This would confuse readers. It has to be a car. Either that or you have to tell readers that in other parts of the US, kids who aren't farmers actually drive trucks.
  • Even though he wasn't a farmer, he'd always loved driving trucks, as did many of his friends in the Midwest even though kids on the west coast would call him a freak for doing so because nobody in California ever drove trucks unless they were farmers. You see, sometimes things are different in different parts of the country and that's okay even if it feels unusual to some people. Now...where was I? Oh yeah, He climbed into his pickup, cracked a soda and swore never to collaborate on another project again.
Conversation 4
  • Your MC cannot be in Carter Elementary. Elementary = kindergarten-4th grade.
  • No, it's always k-6.
  • Well, ours is k-5, with junior high grades 6-9.
  • We don't have junior high. Middle school is 5-8 and high school is 9-12.
  • *le sigh*
Based on life experiences and the language in which people use from infancy on, getting simple ideas across can be cumbersome and frustrating for writers. But it shouldn't be. Maybe it's naïve of me to think that readers carry a certain responsibility in using context clues to infer the definition of words they are unfamiliar with. After all, it is a skill we teach kids in school (the elementary, middle, junior and high versions) to help build their vocabularies. In my opinion, writers cannot carry the full burden of describing in detail every little language nuance that might possibly trip up readers from different areas or generations. Yes, we need to write clearly and succinctly. However, we do not need to act as a dictionary.
To recap: Writing in heavy dialect risks annoying readers. Novels riddled with "all y'all", "oofdah" and "hey" get old fast. A smattering of well-placed words like "groovy" can lend character to certain characters. As a side note, though, it is very easy to use vernacular, dialect and slang to stereotype characters or date a piece, and this is bad. Very bad. All this said, it is impossible to use completely common words that will alleviate any confusion for every reader because the world is a big place and language is as vast and as varied as the individuals who use it. 
So, dear writers, at what point do you strap on your sneakers and run with your word choice? How do you know when your novel's vernacular is too much? When is it not enough? How much description do you use to define potential troublesome words or phrases? How does this vary by age group or genre?
Curious minds want to know.
Cat Woods has never used the phrase "dontcha know" and ridicules with impunity those who do. She also wonders why the rest of the world quotes the movie Fargo (North Dakota) when making fun of Minnesota dialect. Some day she might write this into a novel, but for now, she's content with blogging at Words from the Woods and supporting the middle grade anthology she was contributing editor for. Tales from the Bully Box is part of a bully prevention campaign that is near and dear to her heart and has its own website at The Bully Box.


Jemi Fraser said...

Love it! As a Canadian, I empathize. I've never heard anyone say 'aboot' for 'about', and while we do say 'eh', it's used very occasionally!
I've used my Twitter buddies a lot to find out what a 'typical' US phrase is - and it's always fun to find out the regional differences :)

Matt Sinclair said...

I'm from Jersey, so I typically think people who can't understand that people wear sneakers and drive pickups should continue to read books and magazines and open their minds. ;-)
(And Jemi, I've heard Canadians say "aboot," though it was a long time ago.)

LD Masterson said...

My mother grew up in the Boston area and always called a soft drink (i.e. Coke, 7 Up, etc.) not soda or pop but tonic. When she moved to the mid-west, no one knew what she was talking about.

Karent said...

Chicago native here, and saying "sneakers" there was like nails on a blackboard. We always said "gym shoes." And yes, seeing the ocean for the first time was a big deal. And no, Lake Michigan, lovely as it is, is nothing like it.