re: How Do I Deal with Accents in Dialogue?

posted 4/26/16

Dear Editor….

I’d love to get your opinion on how to show accents. I have a lot of French and Spanish speakers in my realistic Young Adult story and I’m struggling with how to show that on the page. I felt good about playing with an accent in a short scene, but this book’s characters are all European except for the protagonist and her family, so it’s becoming a pain to sort out how to represent their nationalities in dialogue.

Sincerely,
Hearing Things

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Dear Hearing Things…

In general I feel written accents are visually distracting and thus detract from the reading experience rather than inject fun. Instead, try using wrong word choices, odd grammar and sentence structure, sprinkled-in foreign words, and regional/cultural idioms. But what if only their pronunciation of English is “off”? I like how Stephanie Perkins handles this in Anna and the French Kiss, with an American in a French boarding school. She doesn’t write accents even though it’s clear characters have accents. The English narrator thinks Please be in English. Please be in English. Please be in English while waiting for a Frenchman to reply. A Brit says “arse” for “ass.” A Frenchman translates on-the-fly: “There are loads of first-run theatres, but even more—what do you call them?—revival houses.” In Anna, character nationalities are represented in dialogue but readers aren’t distracted from the content or jarred out of the “zone.”

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar, Narrative Voice
posted by: The Editor
under: Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar, Narrative Voice
Comments to "re: How Do I Deal with Accents in Dialogue?" | Add a Comment
    1. Nina Johnson wrote (on 04/26/16 at 3:14 pm) :

      Great answer. It’s very helpful. Now I don’t have to waste time trying to figure out the spelling that would convey the accent.
      Thanks,
      Nina

      [Reply]

      The Editor replied (on 04/28/16 at 10:05 am) :

      Glad you’re finding this helpful!

      [Reply]

    2. MaryAnn Butterfield wrote (on 04/27/16 at 10:52 am) :

      This is very helpful. I love reading stories with French expressions, but that’s because I speak French and enjoy the “visit” with the language; however, if I’m reading a book filled with German words and expressions, it can be distracting and a bit tedious.

      [Reply]

      The Editor replied (on 04/28/16 at 10:06 am) :

      This can definitely play out differently with specific readers and books. As can so many things with writing, which is why I like to explore options rather than declare “rules!” :)

      [Reply]

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