How To Use Slang

The New Year is here. If one of your goals is to write better dialogue, this post is for you.

(Reprinted from Writing Hacks, my subscription newsletter for writers. Subscribe today if you'd like articles like this as soon as they are published.)

Characters Speak Slang

Slang: informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is used by people of all ages and social groups.

If you're writing conversations between fictional people, some of them will use slang expressions. Make sure the slang usage reflects the character's age, demographics, education, and today's pop culture.

A few weeks ago on SlingWords, I gave some online resources for slang: 3 Online Slang Resources.

Use Slang Appropriately

I often include current slang words and/or phrases in my freelance writing because they give a certain immediacy and conversational tone. Bad slang usage is laughable, as you've probably seen on television and movies.

How many times have you seen an older person trying to sound cool and using slang--from his generation. Instead of sounding cool, he sounds like a generation gap buffoon and usually identifies himself as an old fart out of touch with today's world.

Take the word marijuana.

Depending on your age, you will use one of these slang words: pot, herb, grass, weed, Mary Jane, reefer, Aunt Mary, skunk, boom, gangster, kif, or ganja.

If you're a good writer, you won't have a 16-year-old boy calling it Mary Jane, and you won't have a 70-year-old grandmother calling it ganja. Unless your purpose is comedic.

You need to get it right, or you risk sounding like an over-the-hill anachronism.

In print books, it's harder to know which slang word or phrase to use because the lag time between conception and publication is rather large. What's hip today may not be hip next year, or, worse, it may mean the opposite in a year or more. That's usually how long it takes a published print book to hit the shelves.

What's A Writer To Do

1. Choose judiciously.

Some words that were cool a generation ago are still cool, i.e., the word cool. That word never seems to go out of style. Sick may be the word of choice now, but it may be passe next week so be careful and choose wisely. Also, be aware that many young people use slang words they learned from their parents or grandparents.

It all depends on characterization. Example: I frequently use "geez Louise" because I heard it from elders in my family growing up. I used "see you later alligator" to my kids. That comes from some early rock and roll song, and my mom used the phrase. Now my daughter uses it.

2. Don't inundate your writing with slang.

Use it carefully to depict a few characters rather than all of them. If you're writing juvenile fiction, you may try to write all characters rapping back and forth in their own slang dialect, but if you eavesdrop on kids, you'll find that, in general conversation, most of them talk like the rest of us with an occasional slang word thrown in for effect.

Slang is a good way to characterize. If you have Nancy Jane, a grandmother, saying, "My stars!" when surprised, later in the book, you don't even have to write, Nancy Jane said, because the reader knows that Nancy Jane always says that. Of course that means that you must be careful not to put Nancy Jane's surprised exclamation in the mouth of anyone else.

3. Know what you're doing by consulting a good slang dictionary.

There are a bunch of them in print (less reliable because of lag time) and online. There are the 3 that I gave today on SlingWords that I listed above, or find one you like. Enter "urban slang" or "slang dictionary" into a search engine. Many of these are updated often from once a day to multiple times a day.

If you haven't consulted a slang dictionary before, be aware that some of the words may be offensive.

Takeaway Truth

Writers must write for the audience that exists today, not twenty years ago, yet the writing should be as clear in meaning today as in twenty years from now.

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