Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sling Some Slang ... and Win the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

In my other life – as a corporate trainer for a large software company – I once had to write a class to teach business people (specifically the techie help desk folks) how to write business-appropriate email messages.
Big fun, right?
One of the lessons discussed slang and jargon in business correspondence.  Just so you know: Never use slang in a business message; only use jargon when critical to the meaning of your message.
If you are a normal person, you might now be asking “What’s the difference? Slang, jargon…whatever!” So – to be sure we are all on the same page, here are some definitions a la Wikipedia:
Slang: The use of informal words or phrases that are not considered standard to the speaker’s language; often used as euphemisms for otherwise taboo terms or topics. (Example: That’s freakin’ awesome!)
Jargon:  Terminology related to a specific occupation, profession, activity, group or event. (Ex: How many gig is that hard drive?)
And for good measure, here’s another term:
Dialect: A variety of language that is characteristic to a particular group of the language’s speakers; regional speech patterns; perhaps defined by other factors like social class.
(More info on the use of slang and dialect in fiction can be found in this article on, if you are interested.)
NOW I bet you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this. Hang in there! I DO have a point, I promise!
Have you read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books yet? (If not, keep reading for a chance to WIN the ENTIRE TRILOGY!! Or if you are impatient – GO RIGHT NOW AND BUY THEM. Worth every penny!) I was finishing up the last of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, recently and found myself enthralled with his use of slang. And jargon. But mostly slang. And dialect.
Mr. Ness builds a sci fi/dystopian world for us – one that exists on a planet other than Earth at a time somewhere in the future. His characters speak English; however, their dialect has grown and changed (as languages naturally do) over the years of the separation from Earth. Mr. Ness reflects this in the spelling as well as in word use throughout the book. He is so good at it, in fact, that although you might catch the phonetic spellings in the first chapter or two, they become an ingrained, natural part of the speaking patterns of the characters, that you’ll accept them with open arms (eyes?) as the story unfolds. Language that we know and use daily turns on its ear a bit. Sounds within our language become reflected in spelling. And words thought become words heard.
For me, dialect and slang can be hard to separate. They seem to work together toward the same goal: fleshing out the world of the story and the characters. They add flavor and texture; they help the reader feel like they are immersed in the story setting and folded into the action.
For example, here are a few short quotes.
From The Knife of Never Letting Go, page 12 (paperback, Candlewick Press, 2008):
No one knows or can remember what they were ever sposed to be but  best guess by Ben, who’s a best guess kinda guy, is that they had something to do with burying their dead. Maybe even some kind of church, even tho the spacks didn’t have no kind of religion anyone from Prentisstown could reckernize.
From Monsters of Men, page 190 (hardback, Candlewick Press, 2010):
There were just two guards on the power stayshun, no more than engineers really, cuz who’s gonna attach the power stayshun when the whole army’s twixt it and the Spackle –
In addition to the phonetic spellings and unusual speech patterns – the dialects extend to even the animals in Mr. Ness’s story. Now…stay with me here. Yes, the animals speak. But not like you’ve seen before. Mr. Ness has Manchee (the BEST dog EVER!) speak through his thoughts – not out loud like a Disney dog. And when he thinks/speaks, you’d swear it was your own dog talking. He is repetitive, focused, and simple – thinking about squirrels or pooping or food, whatever is most important to him in that instant.
Mr. Ness also allows us to hear the language of other animals, and eventually even another species. (Sheep, for instance, mostly think, “Sheep!” while birds think, “Where is safety?” and horses think “Lead!” or “Follow!”) If animals have their own dialects, Mr. Ness went a long way toward capturing what they might sound like.
All of this in contrast to the newcomer – Violet. She is a colonist, straight off of a ship from Earth. Her language is structured more like what you and I hear every day and she is a good foil for us (the readers) as she learns to navigate the different dialect and vocabulary of the locals.
Can dialect and slang be overdone in fiction. YES! I’m sure you’ve read a story of a novel where the language was distracting rather than focused; annoying rather than helpful.
When you write, do you try to use dialect to help establish your characters or their time and place? Do you avoid slang or use it often? How do you decide?
Want to read the Chaos Walking books? You can WIN them here!
Leave a comment below about your experience reading or writing in dialect or using slang in your projects.  On February 16, 2011 I’ll randomly draw a name from those who commented. I'll post the drawing results here on Carpe Keyboard. The winner will receive a full set of the Chaos Walking trilogy, courtesy of Candlewick Press!
(Fine Print: If the winner does not respond with their mailing address within one week of the drawing, I’ll draw again and offer the trilogy to another Carpe Keyboard follower.)


  1. It was wonderful to find your post on dialect v. jargon. I'm what my family calls a "recovering" linguist, so anything dialectal tends to make me "fall off the wagon."

    I just did a presentation at NCTE on dialect in YA novels and hope I'll have other opportunities to explore this topic and share with writers.

    I've read Mr. Ness's first novel, but would love to have his other books. His use of respelling/dialect/linguistic playfulness was one thing that intrigued me about his story.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Very interesting post, I always assumed dialect was more speech pattern and slang was more word usage but it's nice to see specific examples.

    I'd always been somewhat against dialect in the past. It seemed contrived and unnatural. Then I read the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. It was a classic case of love at first sight. Haha! Although I didn't enjoy the last two books in the series nearly as much as the first, his strong dynamic use of dialect and slang convinced me that, if done well and with taste, it could be a fabulous way of creating a real connection with the reader. Great books, recommended to all, even without a free copy!

    Thanks for the post!

    Question: For some reason it won't let me post my name and e-mail address. Is it okay if I just e-mail you to let you know that the comment belongs to me?

  3. Yes, Anonymous RJ...go ahead and email me with your name so I can put you in the drawing. karisscott (at) hotmail (dot) com.

    Glad to hear from you! Hope you visit often.

  4. Great interview! You see things like "cuz" "tho" in other books but I love his use of words like "stayshun" and "rekernize" -- of course the classic person in this regard is Zora Neale Hurston...

  5. In the second book, The Ask and The Answer, he uses "Ask" and "Answer" in unique ways... I struggled with trying to include a quote for these examples of slang in this story because I didn't want to give anything away about the plot!

  6. Thanks for those interesting thoughts. I haven't read these book and would love the opportunity. I also have done some thinking about writing in jargon/dialect. It's very, very difficult and can be disasterous if not taken on by a very skilled writer--especially the dialect. The writer has to be very familiar with how speech is designed...there are patterns programmed into the human brain that most people are unconscious of. If the writer isn't very attuned to what sounds right and wrong, the reader will be lost and annoyed.

    Thanks for your thoughts! I assume from the fine print that I wait until I've won the books before sending my email?

  7. Welcome, Esmeralda! I agree wholeheartedly -- dialect can be disasterous unless the writer really knows the language well.

    Yes -- please check back on Feb 16 here on Carpe Keyboard. I'll do a random drawing, then I'll post the winner and ask them to email me their snail mail address so I can ship the books.

    Good luck!!

  8. Sorry guys! I got caught up in unexpected stuff yesterday (sick puppy!) and didn't get to the drawing. I'll do it today -- I promise!!

  9. Woo hoo Esmeralda! You won!! Send me your mailing address and I'll put those books in the mail to you.