Ask Daphne! About slang

March 27th, 2012 • Kate

slingbacks for slang!I was beginning to think you guys didn’t have any more questions for me about the great big world of publishing — that I’d answered your every concern in the past four years of blogging! I’m so glad to hear there’s still things I can post about! Like this question from Donn:

I have a question about the use of slang in middle grade fiction. Is it really as looked down upon as one of my writing peers suggests? She told me the publishing industry would rather give kids positive examples of how to speak than negative ones, which, I assume, is referring to the use of incorrect grammar.

But what if I have a character in my novel who doesn’t use proper English because it happens they have parents and friends who also speak improper grammar around them? It just seems really strange when I write this particular character’s words in grammatically correct format, like it’s not authentic. Any thoughts on this? Thanks!

Uh, not to disparage your writing peer, but I’m afraid she’s wrong. First of all, let’s put paid to the idea that the publishing industry is in business to give kids positive examples of anything. Publishing is in the business of selling books. And books? Books are stories! Books aren’t about lessons and themes, they’re about adventures and romance, thrilling tales, laugh-out-loud humor, and anything that will get people turning pages and buying books. Can you do all that AND teach kids stuff? Sure! But that’s not the first goal, at least not for anyone I know on the trade side of things.

I firmly believe you should write your characters in their authentic voices, and let them speak naturally. Now, that doesn’t mean poor grammar in your novel. But it does allow you a certain leeway in the dialogue.

A little story to hopefully help make my point: My husband has his first novel, Hidden Things, coming out this fall from HarperCollins. And if I haven’t enthused about this before, don’t worry, I will. But anyway, he’s gone through a number of edits with this book — with his agent, a couple of rounds with his editor, and now with a copy-editor. And the copy editor has marked all sorts of little thing, most of which Doyce accepted as reasonable changes — except where it came to dialogue. Because people don’t always speak with perfect grammar. So, no, he’s not going to correct “ain’t” to “isn’t”, because an Iowa farmer would say “ain’t” — or at least he would in this book.

Now, if you’re writing an entire novel in the voice of one of characters, then I think you might want to stay a little truer to the rules of grammar, but there is some leeway. So long as it’s a choice you’ve made, and not a lack of knowledge about proper usage, you should be fine.

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2 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About slang”

  1. @Three_Star_Dave Says:

    Is there room, though, for concern about slang dating a particular work? Or is middle grade fiction considered transitory enough that datable slang isn't a concern (i.e., by the time slang is outdated, i.e., in a year or two, the work will be considered dated regardless).

    It's tough, because on the one hand you want to be authentic, but on the other hand, much slang (along with other topical material) is transitory. Other than pedagogical correctness, isn't there room for some concern about slang?

  2. C. LaVielle Says:

    I think slang is especially important to YA and middle grade fiction. This age group uses slang constantly, even the well educated ones. It's a coolness factor.

    And, yes, slang does date a book. This is good if your book is set in a particular time period and you've been careful to use the slang of that period, but bad if the slang you use is too modern or too old. Readers will definitely recognize this.

    It's also bad if you've set your novel in the future and your characters use current slang. Either don't use it or invent a few self explanatory swear words and turns of phrases.