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I have written my novel as a 'first person singular' and in past tense. There are lot of times in it where I have written it as I will say it while speaking. I have used phrases which have implied meaning but it's not technically accurate. Following is an example:

"Ahh don’t worry, it means nothing, all it means as far as practical applicability goes is that you should not generate secondary emotions, you know like emotions about emotions" Susan said..

Especially the phrase 'you know' is some thing I use while talking which means I am asking the listener 'are you following what I am saying?'

Is this acceptable?

  • Is the sentence you quoted in dialogue? – tryin Jun 27 at 10:03
  • @tryin yes it is in a dialogue. I will edit to clarify. – codeNewbie Jun 27 at 10:17
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    Some readers, especially older ones, don't like seeing dialogue with too much slang because "no one talks like that". I use 'like', 'omg', 'lol' and so on in real life as punctuation, but it can get annoying to read. – tryin Jun 27 at 11:57
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Yes, that is acceptable. In dialogue, the only thing I'd say is unacceptable is trying to duplicate "sound effects" in the speech itself.Like if somebody is speaking with a mouth full of sandwich; just say so.

Bob mumbled around a mouthful of cereal, "I don't want any."

Don't try "I doh wah enna", it breaks the immersion of the reader by making them try to figure out what the person is saying. And in some contexts for modern fiction, readers may take such "sound effects" intended to convey a cultural accent as racist or offensive.

But slang, Um, Uh, Ah, Ooh, Ugh, are all fine; everybody understands them. Don't write anything you invent for sound effects. But don't overuse these, either, real speech on tape is littered with Uh, Ah, weird pauses and restarts. Don't try to duplicate that, in real life we don't even notice these, but in print they break immersion if they are used in every other sentence.

Other than that, feel free to write dialogue with the grammar people actually use.

  • Thankyou for the answer. That clarifies my doubt. – codeNewbie Jun 27 at 12:36
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    I personally have never minded "I doh wah enna" type passages, and they have appeared in books by some of my favorite fiction authors. – Jedediah Jun 27 at 21:44
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(Decided not to spam the comments section, so)

Using spoken english ( sometimes called 'being colloquial') is good - it makes your story more realistic. In real life, people 'hmmm' and 'uhh' and pause for confirmation from their audience and have bad grammar.

"I goed to the park," said Suzy

That's okay* if you've established Suzy as someone who isn't good at english, although, as Amadeus rightly pointed out, some people might find it offensive and be hurt by it.

When using phrases like "Am I right?" "You know?" etc, it's implied that there is both a speaker and an audience. This is why you can't use these in third person narration - who's the speaker?

In your first person past tense narration, though, you can do things like

"It's totally chill, I've got it," said Anu.

Although I didn't trust her to take care of it properly, I had no choice. I couldn't break my head on it forever, could I?

Both of those are informal phrases (although apparently 'break my head is very Indian - I figured you might appreciate it ;) ), and they're used in two different contexts - dialogue and narration (from a 1st person POV)

However, if you had something like

"Oh Em Gee! I just love this place! It has, like, the best, like, salad in, like, the world!!!"

That comes across as a stereotype and annoying - people who don't use slang will think it's unrealistic because no one says "like", people who do use slang will think it's unrealistic because no one says "like" that often.


*There's no real 'can' and 'can't' in writing. You can do whatever the heck you want. You can write in Klingon, no one's going to stop you. But adhering to conventions gives you a better chance of having someone read what you write.

  • Thank you so much for the answer. I am wagging my neck in appreciation;). This clarifies a lot. – codeNewbie Jun 27 at 12:41
  • Actually I've often heard people use words like "like", like, all the time. That sentence isn't at all implausible. :-) – Jay Jun 28 at 20:33
  • @Jay really? I figured the combination of the three 'like's and 'oh em gee' would put off any younger readers but I guess we know different types of people – tryin Jul 1 at 5:23
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    @tryin I'm not saying that it would be a good sentence to include in a book. Just that I would not be at all surprised to hear someone SAY it. It wouldn't be bad because it's unrealistic. It would be bad because it's unnecessary and distracting. Unless there is some point to it, of course, which would depend on the context. – Jay Jul 1 at 13:41
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Yes, your characters should speak naturally, not as if they were reading a formal piece of writing out loud.

But that doesn't mean you won't edit it. Take the example of radio interviews. They routinely edit out pauses, um's, and you knows. This creates speech that is easier to listen to. After all, someone whose speech has a lot of filler can be hard to listen to, even in person.

It's fine to keep some of the filler in. Like in your example where the "you know" is deliberate and has meaning. Most of the time when we say it, it's a way of filling a pause. Or the "umm" in Jay's example. As Jay says, leaving it in changes the meaning of the sentence. Not grammatically, but as a whole, along with body language and context.

Writing filler is like writing accents. You want to be careful with how much you use it. But it's something that's there all the time, whether you draw your reader's attention to it or not. Don't make it a distraction and you'll be fine.

  • Many thanks for the answer. – codeNewbie Jun 29 at 7:27
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In dialog, you most certainly should have your characters speak like real people actually speak, and not in formal written English.

Like in real life, if I hear someone coming in the door and I call out, "Who's there?", they're very likely to say, "It's me". Very few people would say, "It is I." Or the person might say simply, "Bob". They would be very unlikely to say, "The person who has just entered the room is Robert G Miller." You might have a character who talks very formally as a way to make him distinctive, but if everyone talks like that, your story would be wildly unrealistic.

I see that Amadeus mentions using "umm" and "ah" and such words. In real life, we often break up sentences with pauses and words like "umm", and people listening never notice it. I'd say that you should only include such words in dialogue when you need to emphasize a pause. Like:

"Where have you been?" Sally asked.

"I was just, umm, at the, uh, grocery store," Bob replied.

In real life, that might be what someone would routinely say. But if I read that in a story, I'd interpret those as exaggerated pauses, like Bob is lying about where he was and is trying to make up a story.

Whether narration should use complete, grammatically correct sentences is a different question. It depends on the tone you want to create. I think most stories give narration in complete, correct sentences, but you can use more conversational English if you want to create a chatty tone.

  • Thank you so much for your answer. It gives me a lot of freedom and confidence to write. – codeNewbie Jun 29 at 7:24
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Your narration can also be more casual -- it depends on the overall tone of the work, but the Narrator POV is sort of a character, too.

Sometimes, if it's generally more formal, by using the casual tone (if intended), it becomes clear that we're now closer to a protagonists' thoughts. This happens a lot in Harry Potter -- sometimes the 3rd person POV narration is a little more angsty/teenage-ish -- that means we're basically in Harry's thoughts. When the narration is more British Story Teller, then the information is to be taken as more objectively true.

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If you look at actual transcripts you will realise quickly that fictional speech is not the same as actual speech - and that this is a good thing.

It's totally ok to include mannerisms and limited slang to establish a character, but taken to extremes characters may date quickly or be totally unintelligible outside of the time or place in which they lived or the author wrote. Real speech can also leave too much implied (too much work for the reader) or simply not advance the narrative enough (be too boring).

Disclaimer: I disliked Huckleberry Finn. Other opinions are possible.

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