Monday, June 27, 2016

Regionalisms in Writing

My husband came home from fishing the other evening to find me all hot and bothered, 
pacing in circles and waving my arms.
 He chuckled, but kept a healthy distance. What was going on?

“Needs fixed,” I sputtered. I paced some more. “I hate, hate, hate it when writers don’t use the proper ‘to be’ before a transitive verb.”

We agreed the first person from whom we’d heard that peculiar construct was a Hoosier. Not like Wisconsin doesn’t have weirdeties, but, as my brother who's lived in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and is a world traveler says, the national evening newscasts are the final word: Midwestern accents and sentence structure are correct, if boring and homogenized.

My hissy fit had actually started a couple of hours earlier when I ran across the first such usage in a novel I was proofreading. I sighed and passed over it, then…came the second one. I perused the publisher’s particular style guide and, finding nothing, pounded out a message to get permission to correct.

“Hmm,” the publisher, who I respect highly, wrote back. From Pennsylvania. “I never realized that I do that too. Ignore it.”

The third usage had me flying around the internet on my editorial broomstick looking for examples I could call them all out on, proving this speechifyin’ was just plumb wrong. As wrong as the actual published book I happened to be reading for quasi-pleasure where ever’one said “plum crazy” and the like ’bout three times a chapter. Needless to say I was already cross-eyed with fury at authors. Who. Don’t. Bother. To learn the rules before breaking them. I learned from one article on the 'net that dialect is different from regionalisms which generally refer to geography.

I found an internet site that explained the usage which drops “to be” first started in Pennsylvania where the chocolate needs stirred and made a narrow swath across the middle states to Montana where the fence wants repaired. The usage supposedly puts an immediacy in the action and removes future tense.

It’s still WRONG. It will always be wrong. And it MIXES TENSES. I would recommend joining the American Dialect Society, but their word of the year in 2015 was the singular “they.” The world is just going to heck in a hand basket. Isn't lazy writing one of the seven deadly sins? I can feel the monumental lean of language drift dragging us all down with it.

Two adult beverages and a piece of pie later, I was calm enough to sort through my feelings on the matter. Of course in dialog fiction writers can and should use a gentle indication of character uniqueness which will often include local dialect after a fashion—at least to establish scene and time frame. Particularly if he's a pirate or a Quaker or she's a non-native speaker of whatever language. But there’s that trust factor with your editor. In my first published book my editor, a preacher’s wife from Ohio, absolutely refused to believe we have three-day funerals in Wisconsin. Another rep from Michigan didn't think a three-point turn—which I thought was on every state’s driving test, but I’m totally not going thereon a fire road would not pass the universal reader comprehension test.

But how much is too much, and when do we standardize our stories so our international audience will be able to feel comfortable reading our work no matter when and where it’s set? Regarding dialect, authors who read widely in many genres and types of media will capture a natural rhythm and pattern of language. Y’all authors who listen to television shows will hear how local shows, perhaps local cable or local news, compare to nationally syndicated shows, or even nationally syndicated shows with multiple hosts from different parts of the country. It’s okay to show how some folks may drop word endin’s or a consonant when looking for a pahking spot. Gently. Within reason. Not constantly to distraction. If one character from Ohio has a lawn needs mowed, by golly, let him mention it—maybe once. If a Hoosier has some warshing ta do…let him get on wid it. In conversation. Not in text. If it’s repeated in narration from more than one perspective, then we have an AUTHOR INTRUSION ALERT. Are you awake now? AUTHOR INTRUSION ALERTS are never a good thing in fiction unless it’s a running gag—like Death narrating The Book Thief.

If the regionalism or local custom is not critical to the story, don’t use it, even if it means obeying your cussed editor. On the other hand, if your story takes place in the Great North Woods, in which fire roads or lanes are cut between great timber stands in rural areas where roads are few and far between and your character is fleeing criminals while driving these back roads, lost as all git-out, and you have to stop and 'splain a fire road to non-native Wisconsin readers, it would slow the action, doncha know? THE CURE: You the Author can establish a way to make sure the reader understands this concept before your chase scene, you betcha, without demeaning native folks who can’t imagine anyone else not knowing about the need to get firefighters to the middle of a dense forest to fight fires.

The moral of the story is Go Gently with Colloquial Language, use regionalisms to establish quirk, setting, time frame, but don’t impale it into your story-telling technique.
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  1. Great article Lisa. I sometimes have one character use colloquial language or a colloquial phrase to help make my characters different. I shared the article on Twitter, Facbook, and Google+.

    1. Hi, Jimmie. Thanks. I think it works very well to let a character be the quirky one. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lisa, I couldn't help laughing out loud. As a Michigander living in Tennessee now, I often run across speech patterns that baffle me, but I refrain from using the really odd (to me, at least) ones in my writing lest I also baffle my readers. Some things should remain local. I'm sure I use language that irritates/amuses the Tennesseans down here :-)

    1. If I didn't hear it again on the news this morning...furriners coming in. What'll this world come to?