Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sorry, My English Not So Good

In a continuation from my previous post on non-English wording, I'm moving on to something vaguely related: bad English. I don't mean cussing and "bad words." I mean a character just trying to speak English and not really succeeding.

My MC from my NaNo project is English Second Language (more like fourth language, but it's the first Earth language, so, sure, ESL), and after I thought about it, I concluded the English I had her speaking might just have been too good.

After all, no matter how good you are at picking up languages, you're probably never going to be spotless. You'll likely have some sort of accent or some verbal tick you use to fill time while you speak. I know my French can get pretty atrocious in the conjugation department if I don't think too hard, and I spent years on that. I know some people who are whizzes at language, and even they aren't flawless. So, McKinley, much as I love her, can't speak perfect English. Certainly not idiomatic English.

This is something I've chosen to embrace. I've started trying to look out for innocent mistakes one can make with English and with English expressions. My favorite, mined from my Chinese teacher, for incessantly: non-stoppingly. Love it.

My question is, how annoying can it get reading a character with rocky English. She's not bad, of course, going to an American school, but I'm wondering how far I can push this characteristic before someone decides to throw the book against the wall and say, "To heck with this. I'm reading something where people speak g.d. English." Like those days when you had to read Huckleberry Finn in English class and you had to pause and think about what he was really trying to say there.

How do you feel about characters with rocky English? Do they annoy you? Amuse you? Confuse you? Have you ever written a character whose English always comprehensible? How hard would you find that?


  1. I don't like stumbling over dialogue when I'm reading. A splash of it's okay, but if it's constant, I'm annoyed.

  2. I think it depends on how it's written. I try to avoid using a lot of dialect that make it difficult to understand what's being said, and focus more on the rythm of the speach, word order, etc. When done well, it gives the flavor of a person who uses ESL.

  3. I agree with Melissa, if there's too much dialect then it's just hard to read. But I like some so it gives a flavor of that character. But I'm all about character flavor! :)

  4. I agree with Melissa too.. I think it all depends on how it's written. If you can make it flow, go for it! :)

  5. I'm with Susan and Melissa on this. Huck Finn annoyed the heck out of me (and my classmates) when I had to read it. But I think there's a difference between writing a dialect and writing someone who's trying to speak "correctly".

    My favorite example of a ESL character is Ziva from NCIS. She speaks correctly probably 95% of the time, but gets hung up on the metaphors and turns of phrase like, "I feel like a donkey's butt" instead of "horse's ass". Or "He's on the goat-oh not goat...sheep!" "Lamb?" "That's it."

    Check out these vids for more Ziva hilarity:

  6. it really depends on how it's written. Sometimes it's okay and sometimes it's really annoying. Do it in moderation and it'll probably be fine.

  7. Susan -- True. I hope to be more cute than annoying.

    Melissa -- Yes, the flavor is the key.

    Jaime -- Yes, flavor FTW. :)

    WritingNut -- Good point. Flow.

    Vicki -- Ah, Ziva. Good example. Thanks for the links. :)

    Melissa -- Yes, moderation is definitely key.