Dialect: nonstandard spoken language; a regional variety of a language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation
Vernacular: the distinctive vocabulary or language of a profession, group, or class
Conventional wisdom and today’s creative writing instructors discourage the use of dialect, yet creative writing has few absolute rules. Some writers get away with using a little dialect here and there. As writers we must remember, however, that dialect is substandard English. Do we want our writing to be substandard?
If we must, we can sprinkle one dialectical word here and there in dialogue, but I have a better suggestion. Instead of writing in dialect, the wiser choice is to write in vernacular. Vernacular uses word choices and word order to show that a speaker is not speaking standard English. When we write dialogue in vernacular, readers clearly see the shift and understand when someone is speaking with a foreign accent or a regional twist.
As an example of vernacular rather than dialect, you might write this: “She wasn’t no angel, if you ask me.” Write in vernacular, and readers know the speaker is not speaking in standard English. In contrast, the same sentence written as “Sha warn’t no anjel, iffen you ass me” would make readers stop and reread, to understand the sentence. We never want readers to have to back up and reread something, to understand it. When I read dialect, I often have to stop and read it aloud to understand it, and I’m therefore not a happy reader immersed in a story. Dialect loses readers, and we don’t want to lose our readers.
If writers feel the urge to write a character’s dialogue in dialect, here’s the one immutable rule they absolutely must follow. They must not misspell words that would be pronounced the same if spelled correctly. In a one manuscript I edited, among some somewhat acceptable dialect, I also saw several misspelled words. For example, and I’m changing this entire sentence, so the author’s work is protected, I might have seen a sentence that went like this: “I ain’t cleer on whut choo want frum de sto, cos I cain’t remember nothin’.” As an editor, I repaired the incorrect spelling, but I left the use of the word “ain’t,” because that word is considered vernacular. The corrected sentence then went like this: “I ain’t clear on what you want from the store, ’cause I can’t remember nothing.” As a reader, don’t you still get the complete idea of how the reader spoke? Of course you did, and without a bunch of misspelled words.
Incorrect spelling does not equal dialect; it equals incorrect spelling. Period.
If you decide to use dialect, which is difficult to write well and even harder to read, at least remember to spell words correctly that have the same pronunciation whether spelled either correctly or incorrectly.
When we write in vernacular, however, readers have an easier time reading our books while still hearing the dialect in our heads.
How do you feel about writing in dialect? Do you like to read books with dialogue written in dialect? Do you have tips for other writers about dialect versus vernacular? Let me know. I may share them with other readers.