How do we distinguish how a character pronounces a word and how it is spelled in a dialogue? For example, some people pronounce words in a different way than they should, how do you show that in a dialogue? Is there a way to do this properly? Is there a standard way?

For example:

"I don't want to buy Ae-pple products, because they are too expensive for the quality you're getting."

"It's A-pple, not ae-pple. There are two a's in English, the pronunciation is different, but they are spelled in the same way."

  • 1
    Not in English, no. English doesn't even represent words' regular pronunciation; it's hopeless when it comes to describing spontaneous variations on them. There's a sort of tradition called "Eye dialect" for some things, but only the most common, and even there it's hard. Most Americans still think British speakers say "Er" instead of "Uh".
    – jlawler
    Aug 21, 2019 at 3:02
  • 1
    @jlawler Technically speaking English does have a rule about homographs (words spelled the same with different meanings) where nouns stress the first syllable while verbs and adjectives stress second or third syllables. However, it isn't really taught, we all just learn it from speaking. Ex.: I am conTENT with this CONtent. We will deSERT the DEsert. Some would say a MINute is a miNUTE amount of time. Aug 21, 2019 at 4:18
  • That's true for some homophonous pairs of disyllabic words, but not most. And the same thing happens with some but not most homophonous disyllabic verb-noun pairs - CONvert/conVERT, for instance. But most homophone pairs aren't disyllabic and don't change anything when they're used as verb, noun, or adjective.
    – jlawler
    Aug 21, 2019 at 16:13
  • @jlawler Re your 1st comment, but I've read that most British people are rhotic speakers -- do even they pronounce "Er" without the "r"? If so, then is it known how this spelling, "Er", came into use or became widespread? May 11, 2020 at 18:43

4 Answers 4


Many writers have grappled with this particular problem. Some make use of it.

Colloquial speech and pronunciation in dialog is a tricky thing--too much of alternative pronunciation and it gets hard to read. Readers don't like having to have to translate. The modern way is to pick a few of these and stick with them.

But in older books, like Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, or in a lot of Dickins stuff it was the vogue to capture like EVERY pronunciation and quirk that wasn't standard.

Here's an excerpt from Huck Finn:

Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I’d ben atreat’n her so!

To the modern reader, it's a bit annoying and, well, seems like a caricature, and sometimes a bit racist.

For the specific example you're talking about, it's fine, in fact, it's the point. But you don't want to do that every time. Do it once, on something uncommon, and maybe choose one common word to do it all the time with.

You can indicate speech differences more often with syntax and grammar than alternate spellings.

Anyhow, for the modern reader, just a little of this goes a long way.

  • Huckleberry Finn is a good example of good reporting. Many dialectologists have commented on how accurate Twain's representation of actual speech was. He grew up in the area and had a good ear and a great memory; he knew how folks talked. And he was a genius at representing it. Takeaway: Listen and learn before you report; don't repeat anybody's writing -- write down the speech you hear in your mind's ear. And if you don't hear it, don't write it.
    – jlawler
    Aug 21, 2019 at 16:16

As far as I know, there is no official rules on how to do this. Authors have resorted to various means to convey this, and we actually do it in common texting more than anywhere else. A good example of that is the difference between "Hey" and "Heyyyyy" where the later is generally understood to be held out and almost more cheerful the more it is lengthened.

It is also common to denote the dropping of 'g' in '-ing' with an apostrophe or merging of words to show almost a laziness of speech or at least less precision in annunciation.


"I am hoping they are going to find her soon." vs "I'm hopin' they're gonna find her soon."

In my personal writing I try imagine how the words might sound in that particular accent and embellish that aspect. Sometimes I will push it to an extreme if a particular character has a strong accent or some hindrance to their speech like drunkenness.


"Pardin' my speakin' L'tenant, Sir. I d'n't mean no harm by it." (a low ranked soldier with little education and a strong southern accent)

"N-no, you got it all wrong… Those guys think yer s-some s-sort of ic-c-ce queen… I jusst came o’er here to p-prove that yer a nic-ce girl…" (a drunk attempting to hit on a girl who's already turned him down once.)

In the end, it is really up to you on how you feel the writing will best portray what you want them to sound like. My best recommendation is to actually try saying the sentence out loud in your best attempt at the accent and write what you hear. If you want to get really advanced with it, you could start including actual pronunciation notation, but outside of the more common ones like 'æ' or 'ç' most people won't recognize what they mean and you may end up taking attention away from the story as people try to decipher the characters speech.


Show it.

Using a different spelling is akin to telling: you could similarly just make a recording and ship it with your story. It does not make much sense, right?

You could instead show it. Write down the dialogue in proper English, but show what the words sound like, show the face that the character makes in producing the different sounds, and show the reactions of the other characters too, with as much detail as you think is necessary.

"I don't want to buy Apple products, because they are too expensive for the quality you're getting." Alice said.

Bob smiled at the way she leaned on that A in Apple, her lips protruding, and her teeth showing like a laughing horse. The grimace of that one vowel was the mask of her full distrust.

"It's Apple, with the A as in ask." said Bob opening his mouth on that first vowel as in a smile.

"Whatever. They are still too expensive." said Alice and went on repeating Apple a few times, alternating between the two sounds. "Does it really make a difference?"

"Yes! There are two a's in English, the pronunciation is different, but they are spelled in the same way." explained Bob.


The trope you're looking for is referred to as phonetic accent, or Funetik Aksent. That is, spelling out words as they are spoken by a particular character, rather than they way they should be written.

This is a trope you should be very wary of using. It makes the text significantly harder to read. For several reasons:

  • Normally, we do not read a word letter by letter or syllable by syllable. We recognise the word as a whole. Using phonetic accent you're breaking this process, making the reader slow down.
  • For an ESL reader, words spelled phonetically are a "what was this word supposed to be" puzzle.
  • Letters in English aren't exact representations of sound. So your phonetic accent even in a best-case scenario isn't an exact representation of the accent. If your reader is unfamiliar with the accent you want to show, you haven't really created the particular sound in their mind, nor whatever you would associate with that sound.

That is not to say that phonetic accent can never be used, in fact it is used by many authors, albeit sparingly (mostly). Nonetheless, you might want to consider alternatives.

@NofP provides an example of how you can put on paper the information you seek to transmit. "'A' like ask" gives the reader exactly what you need them to understand. @TitaniumTurtle provides examples of very mild phonetic accent, that isn't hard to read. The discussion How to describe accents can give you more alternatives for when an accent is concerned.

But for my part, mostly, this is a case where I find it convenient to tell rather than show, unless for some reason it is absolutely necessary. I would tell that a character has an accent, I would tell he mispronounces certain words, and I would leave the details to the reader's imagination. To me that's just the same as describing the tone and quality of a character's voice: I can tell a character talks in a deep baritone, or tends to raise their voice at the end of every sentence, but those are not things I can put on a page - all I can put on a page is how it is perceived by other characters.

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