Pros and Cons of Using Local Vernacular

Happy Friday, everyone!

I may have mentioned that I was born and currently live in the Southern US; I may also have mentioned that I had a twelve-year stint in the UK. While naturally I haven’t encountered all the dialects either of them have to offer, I’ve seen and heard a good share. Local vernacular is close to my heart right now, too, because of the novel I’m working on that’s set in New Orleans in 1916, which is why I wanted to take today to talk about the talk, a.k.a. local vernacular.

What do I mean, exactly, by local vernacular? It’s slang, essentially. An ingredient of local or regional dialects. What can readily link a person to a geographical area in addition to (but not the same as) an accent. Why should it matter to you? Because yes, there are some occasions where it’s good to be linked to a region, but there are other times that you’ll want to avoid it.

Local vernacular in writing is ultimately a tool, and the better you understand how and when to use it, the better. We see it all the time in marketing (whether we realize it or not) where it’s used to inspire loyalty from a certain customer base, make a product or service recognizable, or support/create an image of belonging. If you’re one of the crowd, you’re trusted as a businessperson. For example, pseudo-French signage and packaging is understandably rampant here in Louisiana because of the pride in French and Creole heritage – if your product or service utilizes it, not only are you understood, but you are seen as belonging and friendly. Meanwhile, we also see local vernacular in fiction to enrich characters and impart flavor and realism to the setting. There’s a little more flexibility in fiction since we can set and play with our own rules. If you get the details right, you’re trusted as an author.

So if local vernacular is pervasive and useful, why would we want to avoid it? There are three main reasons:

  1. Geographical limitations. You can only take a piece of slang so far before, frankly, it may not be understood. For instance, the South will have a ready grasp of lagniappe — ‘a little something extra’, for those of you not from around here — because it’s familiar. Head north, east, or west, however, and while they may have heard it before, they may struggle to define it. Head outside of the US and use it, and you may not be understood at all. If something’s not understood, it’s ineffective. If you’re trying to market yourself, a service, or a product outside of the locality that uses that language, you’re going to struggle — it’s incredibly rare for a business with a name or slogan that uses local vernacular to be successful in a larger national or international market.
  2. It’s ultimately slang, whether you like it or not. Slang falls into the informal language category and as you know, there are occasions where informal language is appropriate and where it is not. It’s unfortunate but true that outsiders to a dialect, upon hearing/reading it, will — because of point #1 — feel at a disadvantage, which usually translates to seeing that dialect as lesser. Not all the time, but often. A more common example is that we all know that we shouldn’t be casual in an interview, and speak formally and clearly.
  3. Consistency problems, which mostly applies to writing. While there may be a few words that have a widely-understood spelling, when you get into the less obvious representations of dialect (e.g. — using apostrophes everywhere to contract words or drop a final letter) the fact of the matter is that it can be difficult to keep track of how you write something and when. I know I do. Also, though punctuation is a beautiful thing, if you have apostrophes everywhere eventually your manuscript is going to look like a spider skittered through an ink pad and then over every page.

Readability is key: too much vernacular and your reader will be exhausted by the time they get through a couple of paragraphs. You want your text — whether it’s a resume, a novel, or a business card — to be easy for your reader to understand, and appropriate to the audience and your intentions.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with local vernacular, be it when writing or reading!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Five Habits That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Happy Friday, everyone!

I was talking to a friend yesterday about our writing habits – which of them are beneficial and which are not. While our discussion mainly revolved around our overall writing process, it made me think about the smaller habits I see in clients whose work I’m familiar with, and my own. Old habits die hard, goes the adage – and why? Because so often we don’t realize they’re there and though our well-intentioned friend the auto-checker tries its best, it frequently doesn’t catch them.

You’d be forgiven, after scanning the list below with bated breath, to not see a problem with many of them – what you may not realize is that these habits make your work sound dated, look unprofessional, and feel clunky, which are the absolute last things you want! Often it is the littlest of things that makes a reader question the authority of the writer, and even stop reading altogether. The more you can avoid these tell-tale signs of an unpracticed writer, the better.

  1. Capitalizing keywords unironically. (Not to be confused with typing in all caps.) Capital letters should only be used in specific instances – titles, proper nouns, and the beginning of sentences being the three main areas. No doubt you’ve seen them used as a stylistic choice, such as to make a webpage appear uniform (look at any of the button labels on most websites you regularly use) or as a tongue-in-cheek way to pretend something is more serious than it actually is (see if you can spot it in this post of mine). You’ll also see legal documents capitalizing important terms. However, too often I see the old habit of using them for emphasis in everyday writing, as though this technique were interchangeable with italics or bolding. It’s not. Don’t do it, folks – not only is it old-fashioned, untidy, and incorrect, but it smacks of poor marketing and is a sure-fire way to make your reader wonder if you’re trying to sell them something.
  2. A double space after every sentence. This is another common one. Instead of hitting that space bar once at the end of the sentence and starting another, it’s hit twice. While not incorrect, strictly-speaking, it can get distracting and is a clear indicator of the generation in which you learned to type (or the age of the person who taught you). Why? The practice of using the double-space after the end of a sentence began as a typesetter’s bad habit back in the advent of the printing press, which was originally straightened-out once conventions were developed during its rise to power. However, the reason you yourself may be guilty of this habit is whether you were introduced to typing via someone who regularly used a typewriter, wherein they may have found difficulty determining where a sentence ended due to the machine’s limitations; a double-space was used so that you could more easily tell that sentence was over. Thanks to modern computing, we don’t generally have that problem. Get rid of that second space.
  3. Bunny-ears. You may see them written doubly or singly, and you may know them by a less endearing name, but they’re there. Of course, there’s a time and a place for using quotation or speech marks – the problem arises when you use them too liberally and when it’s not really necessary. When that happens, when I’m reading all I can hear is an older person trying to be cool with the kids. On a more practical note, though, consider this: speech or quote marks are often used in this context to show that you’re quoting someone else, or that the sentiment or thought contained therein isn’t really yours. It’s a distancing tactic. Fine – sometimes it’s appropriate to do that. But when every other thought that you’re expressing carries this sign of uncertainty, I begin to doubt your confidence in what you’re saying. Not to mention it’s going to get confusing when you’re actually quoting someone or writing dialogue.
  4. Dated phrasings, particularly references to technological advancement that’s already happened. As an example, take one of my pet peeves: ‘In today’s world’. If you’re about to write about something that’s occurring now, just write it without introduction. We automatically assume it’s happening in the present without you needing to tell us. If you do, it makes you sound like you’re preaching from decades back. This is of course slightly different from archaisms – words and phrases that we don’t use anymore, such as ‘pray tell’ for ‘what is it?’.  If you’re uncertain whether you’re using a dated phrase, ask yourself if the sentence will still make sense without it, or if it’s stating the obvious. This involves understanding your intended audience.
  5. Multiple exclamation points, question marks, or over-use of ellipses. Conversely, this can also denote an immature writer. There is no reason to use more than one exclamation point or question mark. No excuses. Adding more will not make it more. Most of us rarely stray into that habit – more often I see the incorrect or over-use of the ellipsis (‘…’). More than a comma or dash, an ellipsis is used to slow the reader down. You may remember being introduced to it in school as a technique to create suspense. The problem lies…when you use it…too much… Then I don’t know…what you’re trying to lead me into thinking, or even…what you mean…sometimes…or even if you know… (You see what I mean?) It’s melodramatic, cluttering, and like too many bunny-ears leads me to think you’re not confident enough in what you’re saying.

Not sure about usage? Spotting these in your own work not your strong suit? That’s what your editor is for! Additionally, as you’ve noticed a lot of these have to do with punctuation; I’m aiming to explore each of the punctuation marks in their own ‘spotlight’ posts to help you get a better grip on them. Stay tuned.

What are some bad habits you can’t seem to shake? What are some of your pet writing or typing peeves?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan