Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Speech Patterns

I work for a company where we have acronyms for everything. I recently spent time with some very good friends (who I also happen to work with) and had to smile every time one of them talked in acronyms. You know those cell phone advertisements with Malcolm MacDowell and James Earl Jones where they talk like "kids" and things are "adorbs" etc.? Lots of abbreviations in her speech. I love her to death and I find her speech shorthand "adorbs."

On that same subject, my father-in-law used to have filler words. We'd sit and talk and when he couldn't find the right word, he'd insert the word "outfit." It was an all-encompassing noun filler for people and places and things. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, preparing to work on one of my books and my husband had changed the password on the laptop. Before I could get up to ask him for it, my father-in-law sat down with me and started talking. I wished I could have logged on to record the conversation. His speech patterns were fraught with dialect and the occasional "outfit." I've often thought he would make a very colorful character in one of my novels, but I'll never be able to capture his conversation accurately. It was a unique pattern that is difficult to recreate, and that was probably one of the last coherent conversations we had before he passed on.

Colloquialisms and idioms can be limited to geographical areas and sometimes get lost in translation. When using them in novels, these figures of speech can cause confusion to the reader unless presented perfectly in contest or explained. Which brings me to my morning radio show (I guess I'm still fighting random free association, three weeks after busy season), where they have "Melissa, the joke explainer." She doesn't mean to do it, but in trying to understand it herself, she dissects a joke and explains it, which makes it no longer funny or relevant.

So why this topic today? In my current work, Rekindling, I have a passage that goes like this:

“I never expected you to be the type to drink yourself silly,” she said quietly.
He shook his head, his eyes locked on hers. “Not.”

My critique partner pointed it out to me as confusing and wondered if it was a colloquialism. For my part, I read it as a question asked and answered. A man of few words. Because I greatly respect my critique partner, I'm going back to make sure it makes sense and to see if I need to draw on Melissa, the joke explainer, to make it clear. There's a fine line between showing your character's personality and explaining their personality. Sometimes its necessary to do both, and sometimes you have to let them speak for themselves.

Back to editing. Lots of work yet to do.


  1. Interesting post friend. I think I probably use quite a few idioms when speaking. As I've gotten older and with a tad of dementia setting in, I often have trouble finding the right word. I need to find a word to substitute like your father-in-law did. That's unique. I usually just stumble around and someone fills it in for me. I remember my mother doing that in her early stages of Alzheimers. Your friend sounds like an interesting person to talk to.

  2. I've always been fascinated by dialect and accent. To that end, I took it upon myself to learn other languages to understand some of them. I still love listening to cadence and structure, although learning new languages is much more difficult for me now, or maybe the languages I've attempted are more difficult.