S’up, homie?

I’ve been hearing a lot of people with differing opinions about the use of slang in writing. Slang isn’t inherently good or bad on its own, but there are times and places where it’s appropriate and times and places when it isn’t. And that’s what this post is going to address.

Slang is, by nature, something we need to approach carefully. It isn’t to be tossed about lightly because readers might not pick up what you’re putting down. Yo. Slang also differs wildly between cultures and even between regions of the same culture. “Wicked” in New England means “cool” or “awesome”. “Wicked pissa’” means “really awesome”. Yeah. We’re dweebs like that, I know. However, if you aren’t  a nerd, or you haven’t paid much attention to New England, you might not know that. Hence the dangers of using slang. If someone unfamiliar with our slang heard that they might cringe and think we have a bladder infection or something.

Slang also can be dangerous when you’re dealing with individual professions. My husband was a machinist for years, and that industry has its own lexicon. For example, “I’m going to mic this part,” means “I’m going to inspect this part with a micrometer”. Mic, in this case, differing from the common use (“microphone”) and resulting in a funny mental image.

Using slang in writing is a delicate act. On one hand it’s a good way to establish a character’s baseline. A character using the slang of “ain’t” and such is unlikely to be from China, for example. Also, using the proper slang for the character can advance the depth of the storytelling. On the other hand if it isn’t explained properly it can be disastrously confusing. Make sure, if you use slang you either stick to common slang or explain it somehow. To use the machining example:

“I’m gonna mic this part,” he said, brandishing the micrometer as he carried the part over to the table and began measuring.

That’s a little verbose on my part, but the concept is sound. While it’s never good to take the reader too far out of the moment to explain what a character is saying if you can do it in line of the text without distracting from the moment it’s a great way to bring the reader further into the moment.

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6 thoughts on “S’up, homie?

  1. Sam says:

    I’m struggling with this in my current WIP because it’s set in the 1920s. I want the dialogue to seem period but I’m limited to slang that the reader will understand. I tried looking at the 1920s slang link you provided but it’s not working for me. Do you have advice on historical slang?

    • E. Harvey says:

      I will write a blog entry on this subject. However, I can give you something of a preview. An example of how I would do it would be:

      “Man, she’s got incredible gams,” Simon said, staring at the waitress’ legs.

      It isn’t obvious when he says it, but the fact he’s staring at the woman’s legs is an indicator of what he meant. Context can help a reader determine what you’re trying to communicate. My husband (who has written Noir in several collections) says if you scout around the internet you can find full 20’s dictionaries. Another good way to steep yourself in the language of the time is to read things published in that era (magazines, newspapers), listen to old radio shows, watch movies either set in that time period or actually filmed in that time period… There are a lot of ways to learn the lingo. Also reading other books in your genre may help you get a handle on how other authors have addressed that very issue.

  2. Richard Finney says:

    Great post!

    The other problem authors need to be aware of is using slang can date your material. What can seem like cool and hip slang words, meant to show your character is cool and hip, is often times laughable years later… sometimes months later.

    • E. Harvey says:

      You are absolutely correct about this. However, in some cases that isn’t a bad thing if the book is written about a specific time. If a book was, for example, written to be “current” in the 80’s then the slang being 80’s isn’t wrong. I think it depends entirely on what you are going for in the end, but “dating” a book is definitely something to be conscious of when writing. Thank you very much for the input!

      • Richard Finney says:

        Yes, you are absolutely correct about what you write with your reply.

        That’s why perspective is so great in writing… nevermind the big picture…

        Just on slang — using slang to look back at the 80s rather than writing it during the 80s allows you to use language in a way that the author is more in control, using the slang for a result that resonates on more than one level.

        Writing about the here and now… trying to be cutting edge… is like working without a net… or perspective. If a writer uses the slang of the moment to get the reader there… in the moment… they run the risk of making sure that, let’s say, ten years from now… it will be the exact same thing that denies that future reader of feeling the moment.

        The same goes for something that was once very popular — the use of product brand names.

        I grew up on Stephen King peppering his prose with “Excedrin,” instead of aspirin, which, at the time, every writer used the generic word, asperin. So King’s writing was a breakthrough, and young readers like myself responded because his stories felt more accessible, and real. I think the brand name useage peaked around “American Psycho” where Brand Names had by that time become something to use to make a bigger point, not just sustain accessibility and modern reality.

        But now, you have to be careful.

        Everything is changing too fast…

        if you think you’re cutting edge by using the brand name of a particular mobile phone… in five years readers could be asking, WTF? Who is “insert your brand name.”

        I speak totally of Fiction here… Non-fiction writers should be going after stuff that does time stamp their writing…

        At least so us fiction writers, years later, can use it for our stories…

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