“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.”

This is the first thing the slave Jim says in Huckleberry Finn, a book that up to that point did an admirable job of dialect. It would be the height of arrogance for me to criticize the master Mark Twain (pboh!) so I won’t (and I’d be wrong if I did!)

I will, instead, point out that Twain was a man of his time, and in his time books were very frequently read out loud. This has created a misconception in the modern writer that desperately needs rectifying.

That misconception is the use of punctuation and misspelling in order to communicate dialect. Twain had a genius ear for dialect – the way people sound when they talk, in cadence and in word choice and in grammar. If you read Huck Finn up to the point of Jim’s jarringly misspelled line, you will quickly see that, while Huck has his own grammar, he NEVER drops a “g” and only rarely misspells a word. Instead, Twain communicates Huck’s dialect through word choice and sentence structure.  **

Go ahead. Read some of it. Now. I’ll wait.

See what I mean?

Now, after Twain threw in those lines from Jim – who almost universally spells poorly, drops his “g”, and uses slang and limited vocabulary – other lesser writers decided it was a great idea to do this but more. Why? Because it was an easy way to tell the reader how lines were to be pronounced. Reading in the Victorian age was a pastime as important as watching television is to us today – it made tedious chores pass quickly, gave men and women conversational discussion points, and created a common culture that was not centered around the Bible. Nearly everyone in the U.S. (and growing numbers in other Western nations) was literate, but it was typical for groups to get together for sewing or corn-husking or other dull tasks, one person reading out loud from the latest bestseller or serial novel while everyone else listened.

For that reader, having an in-text pronunciation guide was invaluable.

For modern readers reading silently to themselves, having to decipher what the HELL all that punctuation says is maddening.

Do. Not. Do. This.

Instead, emulate what Mr. Twain does for Huck’s part of the book – grammar, word choice, cadence. There’s a musicality to Huck’s speech, sometimes dipping into near-Shakespearian iambic pentameter, other times drawling as slow and lazy as the syrupy summertime Mississippi. Not once is it demonstrated with a handful of punctuation. Instead, it is laid out smooth and even, and Twain’s ear does not miss a single beat. It is pure antebellum southern Missouri country talk, the language Twain grew up with. And while Huck’s speech is ungrammatical by the standards we are taught in school, it adheres closely to the internal grammar that is part of his dialect. Respect that grammar, and respect the dialects you choose to use in telling your story.

Note: dialect is an art, one that can be mastered only by deep listening to the speech around us as well as speech that is well-done in good movies and television (the TV show Justified for Kentucky Appalachian dialect, for instance. It’s been diluted with Midwestern standard, but it’s still pretty close to my native tongue). Not everyone loves studying dialect, and that’s okay; you don’t have to use it. But you MUST understand it in order to write good dialog – and you must understand your limitations so you do not misuse it and turn off your reader. Remember that good readers – the ones you want to attract – can spot a fake from way off.


Exercise: We’re surrounded by dialect – on television, on the bus or subway, in our own families. There is no such thing as true standard spoken English; instead, there is Southern American and Cockney and Bronx and American Black and Midwestern and Hawaiian and Puerto Rican and Australian (which I’m sure comes in flavors, but I don’t know them.) Listen to or think about your own dialect and consider for a few moments how it differs from other strains of English – not just standard Midwestern newscaster English, but the Deep South, Louisiana/East Texas, African-American (urban and country, even Gullah), Appalachian, the different dialects of the Five Boroughs, and the many dialects of the British Isles. The cadence, the grammatical structure, the vocabulary, all are different from your native dialect.

Now write a roughly 200-word passage in a dialect of your choice that is not yours – either spoken dialog or an internal monologue as Twain maintains throughout Huck Finn. Try to expose yourself to that dialect beforehand – in Hawaii, I used to go out and eavesdrop on people at food courts or on the street just to absorb da kine English the brahs tole, you know? (The Rock, while he generally doesn’t use pidgin or Hawaiian slang words, has – unsurprisingly – a perfect Hawaiian dialectical cadence to his speech.) Well-done dialect in TV and movies can be instructive as well, though it’s generally modified to some degree to feel more Midwestern (hence less alien to a general viewer) and is much less pure. Gone with the Wind, Scarface, True Grit, and even Mel Brooks’ movies are examples of this.

While writing your dialect passage, do NOT use punctuation to communicate the dialect. Use word choice and grammar only, and keep misspellings to a minimum. Read it out loud before posting; if you say it differently from how you wrote it, change your written text to reflect how you said it.

Oh, and those darn squiggly lines your pinch-mouthed word processor uses to indicate “bad grammar”? Ignore them. In this exercise, you are breaking those annoying and arbitrary little rules. (If you want to be a great writer, get used to breaking rules. While you MUST master the rules, there are no great writers I can think of who stick strictly to good grammar. Every single one is a rebel rhetorician.)


Resources: There are no good resources I’ve found on writing dialect, probably because it’s something that must be felt, not learned. Instead of poring over writing books, read Twain, especially Huck Finn, and consider how he creates realistic characters with dialect – and not just one dialect, but several. Then read at least a portion of Oliver Twist by Dickens, who does dialect in dialog but not as well. Finally, read a page or two of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and consider why neither of these does dialect as well as Twain. Otherwise, just practice listening – REALLY listening – to people in the world around you. Watch great movies and television shows that depend on dialect. Know the rules of grammar and observe how people who speak in dialects systematically break those rules. And practice writing, and reading out loud, dialect.


**Twain did have a specific reason for Jim’s dialect to be ungrammatical in a way Huck’s was not, and it wasn’t because he was using a black dialect. In fact, slaves, poor freed blacks, and poor whites at the time shared very similar to identical speech patterns, as pointed out by linguist John McWhorter and the mighty Thomas Sowell. Jim’s dialect showed that Jim was less educated even than Huck, as would have been typical for a slave of his class at the time. IIRC, Huck’s speech became more standard between the books Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, after the Widow Douglas tried to “sivilize” him. Takeaways: dialect changes over time, and it’s unique down to the individual level.




Previous installments in the series:


Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts

Part 8: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Dialog