Having to deal with the evolution of the English language.


There is no shortage of writing advice out there. Everywhere you look, there are writers, bloggers and teachers advocating proper grammar, proper spelling, use of punctuation etc.etc.

Now as you know, I love classic English literature. As a result, I tend to write in a very similar style. However, I HAVE written a few stories set in modern times- my head is not always in the past, surprisingly. The thing is that when I am working on a piece of modern (or is it contemporary?) fiction, I am sometimes faced with a dilemma: normal people, the general population that is, very rarely apply the rules of the English language anymore. What I’m trying to say is, very few people actually speak properly.

Hence the phrase I don’t know has become “dunno”, I’m going to has become “I’m gonna” and the word BECAUSE in its entirety has ceased to be. Instead it has been shortened to “cause’, “coz” or “cuz” (Cuz that’s how it is, dawg!).

So the issue here is this: maybe it’s just me but I sometimes feel guilty to employ the above slang in modern dialogue.

courtesy of cartoonstock.com

With so much emphasis placed on writing good English, I sometimes feel the need to have my characters speaking correctly, even if it’s against my greater judgment.

Let’s take for example, a conversation between two teenagers. I don’t know about you but I know very few teenagers who actually speak proper English day to day, and even then, they might only save it for the classroom or when conversing with adults, giving speeches etc. So when writing their dialogue, would it make sense to have them sound like they’ve just stepped out of a time machine that has just arrived from the 19th century?

Can we balance good English with modern realism?

And because I don’t read much modern fiction, I am struggling to find examples of where authors have their characters speaking in this informal manner. I can’t remember ever reading a character saying “I dunno” or “Coz I said so” or my personal favourite, the double negative: “I ain’t done nothing.” Yet people in movies and in real life often talk like this.

For those of you who are sticklers for the proper use of our beloved language, would you be annoyed if you had to read dialogue like this? You might tolerate it if it was only one character, who spoke like this, but what if a whole novel was about a group of kids and the dialogue throughout the book was written in this fashion?

Like I said, I don’t read many modern contemporary novels and the few that I’ve read, pretty much stick to the rules of good English. I’m sure, however, that there are plenty of books out there that employ this form of colloquialism. If you know any such books, let me know won’t you? If they are written by famous authors, maybe I won’t feel so guilty…

Otherwise any other thoughts, as you know, are most welcome.   🙂

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33 thoughts on “Having to deal with the evolution of the English language.

  1. I’d be frustrated if I read a book full of teenagers talking in the slangy dialect you describe, and the thing is that the teenagers I know would be frustrated, too! Some phrases like “I dunno” are a speech thing, not a writing thing–people (not just teens!) slur the letters because it’s easier to say quickly, but still consider themselves to be saying the phrase, “I don’t know.” Assuming that teens, and only teens, intend to say “dunno” or “coz” instead of the actual word may make teen readers feel patronized. There’s a tricky balance between authentic dialogue and condescending “eye dialect,” but I am sure you will hit it!

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you for your comment Jessica!

      That’s a good point about the phrases being a speech thing and not a writing thing although I see that changing a bit since people on social media networks like Twitter and facebook often write ‘dunno’ and ‘coz’. Interesting that you say teens would feel patronized. I must point out though, that I only used the example of teenagers to illustrate a point. Like you said, adults are just as guilty of using these phrases as young people and I sort of wondered if maybe dialogue like this would appeal to people who don’t read or who’s English is not up to scratch because they would be able to identify with it. Guess we’ll leave that for another post!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. beckyday6 says:

    I have definitely come across books that do this, although I couldn’t name any one in perticular, I know that none of them were by famous authors though, or I would’ve remembered. I think the book Numbers by Rachel Ward might and some of Kevin Brooks work, but that could be wrong, it’s been so long since I read it/them.
    My grammar is no where near the best and I probably wouldn’t be aware of proper English grammar even if it hit me smack in the face! Lol. Also somewhat ironically, I usually spell grammar wrong (my spelling is not the best either haha.) But my unqualified opinion is, when I have read books using slang, they do it to a ridiculous extent, and you can often feel that there trying TOO hard to sound like a modern teenager. So to answer you question, I think a happy medium is best, throw in the occasional slang word but don’t smother the characters with it and turn them into caricatures 🙂

    • Nisha says:

      Ah, excellent advice Beckster, thank you! I will use the slang sparingly I think but on the hand don’t you also find it annoying when kids in books speak perfect English? Not just one or two but ALL of them. I know I’m going to get into trouble for saying this but there have been a couple of times when I thought this while reading Harry Potter. Of course, HP is a phenomenon now so I think it would be best to take a cue from Ms. Rowling.

      Btw I don’t think your grammar(or is it gramma? grandma maybe?:D) is bad at all. Nobody’s English is absolutely perfect, just ask Stephanie Meyer. LOL just kidding, just kidding!!! 😛

      • beckyday6 says:

        HA, HAHA HAAAAAAAAAAA (sorry still reeling from the last comment, so true 😛 ) Yes I agree with you, children speaking perfect language can also be annoying I read a book called The Hollow by Jessica Verday and god it was terrible. She was supposed to be a young teenager, but she sounded like a 40 year old because of the use of language. One of the worst books I’ve ever read, for other reasons as well though.
        Haha, thank you, I’ve been trying to get better, I think it’s working, slowly 🙂

      • Nisha says:

        Mind you, I’m one to talk. The story I’m writing at the moment is a first-person narrative from a teenage girl’s perspective but since I used a classic English style she sounds unusually mature for her age. Maybe I’ll add a few more years to her age LOL. Why does the Hollow sound familiar? Or am I thinking of a Washington Irving-inspired movie?

      • beckyday6 says:

        Haha, no you are right. The book is based around the fact that the teenager lives in the Hollow, where Washington Irving based his book The Legend of Sleepy Hollow about the headless horseman. This was the main reason I decided to buy the book because I thought it would be interesting……..but it wasn’t, I could’ve written an essay on how bad that book was haha.
        I wouldn’t worry about the grammar too much though, as long as your teenager is making teen like decisions, and has teen like interests it shouldn’t matter. Many popular books have characters that act and sound older than their age, take Philip Pulman’s work for example, it’s largely based around young children yet in real life you would never get 11 year olds acting and sounding the way he has written them 🙂

      • Nisha says:

        Oh I love Sally Lockhart from Ruby in the smoke! I can see what you mean, she is abnormally mature for a 16-year-old.

        Initially when I read your comment I thought you were saying that Irving’s book was bad and I was ready to die, because I bought a book by Irving(collection of all his stories) a few months back but haven’t read it yet. Luckily I realised you were talking about The Hollow! LOL ;P

        I love Johnny Depp’s Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman legend itself. It would have been a tragedy if the book itself was bad. 😀

      • beckyday6 says:

        Haha, no worries! I haven’t seen Johnny Depp’s protrayal of it, I shall definitely have to check that out 🙂 I haven’t read any Irving yet either, but I’m curious to after reading the book based around it, although I don’t know much about him as a writer…

  3. nelle says:

    This is an excellent topic. Colloquial and vernacular are tricky things, in that some variants are better known than others. In writing a story with a lesser known choice, I’d cue the reader in in some way so they get what a writer tries to portray.

    That said, I’d compare invoking such usage to using a calculator. When we can do the calculations on our own, a calculator becomes a timesaver. When we don’t, it becomes a lifeline where we don’t know any other way. For one well versed in language, a given dialect provides one choice out of many available to the author, not the only path they can follow.

    Sue Monk Kidd and Toni Morrison are two I can think of who wrote stories this way with success.

    • Nisha says:

      Wow, I love your calculator analogy! Colloquialism as another choice/alternative for an author – I never thought of it that way, although I did think that it would be great for characterization in that if one character spoke ‘bad’ English or heavy slang it can contribute to their personality and provide colour to the whole narrative.
      From a reader’s perspective, common slang might be easier to comprehend because many people (including me!) use it often in everyday speech. But vernacular on the hand, can be a hit or miss. I read Irvine Welsch’s Trainspotting last year and I couldn’t finish it. It literally gave me a headache! LOL.
      I heard a lot about Anthony Burgess, I will definitely look out for him.
      🙂

      • nelle says:

        Contributing to personality – exactly.
        It can be painful if used extensively. We all face a choice in how much dialogue to include in a story, and what you experienced is good reason for an author to think through just how much to include.
        On Clockwork… I read it 40 years ago, and it was a tough read because of the need to translate words (not to mention the horrific level of violence.)
        A personal note: for most of my life, I’ve played around (verbally) with spoonerisms. I doubt spoonerisms would translate well to page, even though my brain can flip words around in nanoseconds, something I love doing with lyrics. 🙂

      • Nisha says:

        Nelle, I had to look up spoonerisms on the web because I had no idea what it was! Thanks for teaching me something today! I’ve noticed that play on words in many old English comedies like Monty Python and Carry On although the only time I might do this, is if I unconsciously make a mistake! Lol. 😀

      • nelle says:

        YW! A cold day might be a bit nippy, or a nit bippy… Try that with a ‘bit toasty’. 😉

      • Nisha says:

        A tit boasty? Ha ha ha!!!! Thats hilarious. 😀

  4. nelle says:

    (I’m going to add in Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange, a rather extreme case requiring a glossary of definitions at the end of the book.)

  5. I don’t mind language butchering in dialogue, but elsewhere, it drives me nuts. That said, the evolution fascinates me. If LOL and jk make the scholarly dictionary, though…the line’s been crossed!

    • Nisha says:

      Oh that goes without saying August, writers consciously employing slang in their work is one thing. But using it willy-nilly is just wrong and smacks of ignorance.
      With the language constantly evolving, I wont be surprised if LOL does end up in the dictionary. It wont be the first for abbreviations… 😀

  6. jenniferneri says:

    Have you read any YA? I’ve read my fair amount, and I find this is one place where the line your talking about here is crucial to manage.
    For me, personally, dialogue and voice have to be authentic and real, and if this means destroying the english language to be true to the character, then let it be so. Of course, it can’t be stunted the whole way through or we’d be reading fragments. It’s tricky, and takes a lot of time to find the balance.
    I recently read The Lost Memory of Skin, and the mc is a character living on the streets, and told through his pov almost the whole way through. The author hit that balance beautifully!

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts Jennifer. Yes, this is why I’m finding this one a dilemma. It’s important to be authentic/realistic, otherwise your narrative might seem too contrived.

      No, I don’t read YA, Philip Pullman is the only YA author I’ve read. I take it YA authors employ informal dialogue all time?

      As in everything, balance is the key, hopefully I’ll find it… 😉

      • jenniferneri says:

        No, I can’t say that all YA use informal dialogue all the time. There are generally a multitude of characters in YA and these characters vary so much in age gender background etc, that with each character a true voice has to be found, plus depends on era setting. I mainly read YA fantasy though, so i have no idea how other ya genres would compare. I brought it up mainly because teens have their own lingo and if they’re reading through the pov of another teen they have to relate. I find I learn a lot reading YA about charactirization.
        Good luck!

      • Nisha says:

        That was my thinking exactly! People need to relate to the characters, and informal dialogue helps with this in a big way. Thanks Jennifer! 🙂

    • Barb says:

      I agree with jenniferneri. YA often makes heavy use of slang in dialogue. But check out Leonard Elmore, considered king of dialogue. He certainly doesn’t write in complete sentences. Uses lots of contractions, and colloquialism. Pat Conroy’s famous trilogy beginning with The Lord’s of Discipline has such smart, realistic dialogue, the reader can’t help but be transported to South Carolina.
      But I still have an editor friend who won’t allow ’til (even in dialogue). It’s an editorial choice and the complete word (until) will always appear in her publishing company’s works.
      Too much slang is tiring for readers, too little makes for stiff conversation. I agree with the others…It’s a balance.

      • Nisha says:

        Thanks for stopping by Barb and leaving a very helpful comment. I will look out for these authors that you mentioned.

        You know the word ’till'(until) is a debate in itself. I remember using it in school and being lambasted for it by my English teacher. Yet it’s listed in the Oxford dictionary! Nowadays I read a lot of Classics and I see this shortened form ’till’ all the time – in Victorian novels and in books preceding that period.
        As consummate students of the language I can understand why a barrage of slang can be tiring to read. We’ll leave the verdict at striking a balance… 🙂

  7. mj monaghan says:

    I agree with August 100%. In dialogue it’s okay, but not elsewhere, unless really necessary. The language has evolved over time and should continue to. Look at Tom Sawyer and the character Jim: The dialogue there is very conversational and dialected (probably not a real word, but you may know what I mean). But don’t take my opinion to seriously. I’m not a trained writer; all self-taught.

    • Nisha says:

      Thanks for commenting MJ.

      The evolution of language is certainly inevitable which is why I’m now beginning to question the nature of ‘good English’. Somebody from the 18th century might read Dickens and think “that’s not good English at all”; a scholar who lived a hundred years ago might read Stephen King and think ‘what has this guy done to our language?”…see where this is going? 😛
      So as much as I will try to find that balance, I do wonder about the day that our slang becomes ‘accepted’ standardized English. It does make me cringe to think it but we can’t doubt the possibility of this happening.
      By the way, some of the greatest writers in history were self-taught. You are no different from them MJ, so don’t consider your opinion any less important! 😉

  8. Evolution, Nisha, or devolution?? 🙂

  9. trixfred30 says:

    Eats shoots and leaves summarises everything I needed to know about punctuation!

  10. I think part of the reason why we are forced to read classics in school and stuff is to slow down the language change. English is evolving into a very simplistic language with a bunch of symbols, acronyms, and short-forms. Though it is inevitable that language change will occur in the future, I, for one, am not quite ready for it yet. Hence I appreciate writers that use proper English. And if there was ever a book written in an informal style, I’d be annoyed that they are trying to speed up the rate of this change, unless they have a very very good reason to write it in that style.

    • Nisha says:

      Thanks for commenting.
      I agree with what you say about why we read classics in school. It certainly makes sense.

      I don’t really mind change as long as it comes gradually but don’t get me started with symbols! The one thing I hope never occurs is emoticons becoming part of the language! Very slim chance of this happening but you never know! I like using smileys 🙂 when I’m blogging or Facebooking but I hope I never see it in a book!! 😉

  11. You know you made some good points with this post. Even though I can talk perfect English I ten to shorthand my work! Its a habit, I must say I came across a book that didn’t use proper English and wasn’ t sure how I felt about it because I was always to talk use correct grammar. I have redid some of my poems I wrote when I was younger because of the fact or I have kept them to myself because I do use sland in my writing, but I believe thats not surprise to you! lol

    I must say i do love reading your blog because it show me at the sametime what I need to work on! Once I have time I post the book up with the author name! God Bless 🙂

    • Nisha says:

      As I’ve said in some of my previous comments, nobody speaks or writes perfect English. We all make mistakes especially with regards to Grammar. Just today, I sat and deliberated (for a long time!) about a comment I made on Facebook because it didn’t ‘sound right’ grammatically.

      Many writers are sticklers for writing good English and I’m not saying I’m Not one of them – well written English makes it easier and more enjoyable to read, but the important thing is the message you’re trying to convey.
      So don’t sweat too much. I personally like poems that use slang and foul language(he he), makes it more real and conveys more feeling. That’s how I feel anyway… 😉

      Awww, thanks, you made my day! I’m very pleased you like my blog. Mwah! xxx

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