Authors Answer 124 – Should You Write With Plain Language?

Harry Potter is filled with British slang. Lord of the Rings is filled with constructed languages. Is it worth doing that? Or should books be written with easy to understand plain language?

Question 124 – Avoid foreign words and regional slang. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Tracey Lynn Tobin

I’m on the fence with this one. On the one hand, using foreign words and regional slang can enhance a character. A foreigner in America, for instance, might let a few words from their primary language slip every now and then to remind the reader that they’re not originally from the book’s main setting. Similarly, certain types of characters would be a lot less believable if you didn’t use certain dialog quirks. A simple example would be that Americans tend to say “soda”, when Canadians tend to say “pop”.

With that in mind, you should definitely carefully consider the types of regional slang you use and whether anyone is going to understand it. For example, I once described a school bus as “the big yellow limo” in a short story, and almost all of the people who read it (online) asked me what on earth a yellow limo was suddenly doing in the scene because they didn’t understand the regional tendency to refer to school buses in that manner.

Gregory S. Close

I think an author should be careful using foreign words and regional slang, but as long as you’re doing it right – go for it!

Jean Davis

Disagree. If we all sounded the same, writing would be pretty boring. There is certainly such a thing as too much when it comes to slang and foreign words, but using them for spice here and there can enhance the story and personality of characters.

C E Aylett

Slang is something that intrigues me no-end. It can say so much about a place, its history, and its people, far more sometimes than the confines of straight English. I’m a massive fan of Irvine Welsh, who writes in Scottish phonetics, and he deliberately wanted to get away from the starchiness of English grammar in his works. I use slang a lot in my own writing, and some foreign words too, if the story requires it. I think the key to using these styles is to make sure the context is clear from the surrounding text or actions within the story.

Beth Aman

Again, depends.  If you’re writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy, it can make or break your story.  My favorite speculative fiction does this well: Eragon, Lord of the Rings, Mortal Instruments, Six of Crows, etc – all these stories have their own worlds with their own words.  The idea is to do it in such a way that feels authentic and also Not-Overwhelming.  Let it come slowly and naturally, and I think it can add a lot to your story.

Eric Wood

I disagree. As writers we need to know that our readers are smarter than we give them credit for. As long as you are using the foreign/slang correctly, the context clues will help the reader figure out the meaning. Just remember to provide the proper context clues. Also, a reader will feel smarter if you allow them this opportunity.

D. T. Nova

They can both be good for establishing setting and for being a part of a character’s voice.

However, if the meaning isn’t obvious from the context, words that aren’t as commonly known should only be used if explaining them is appropriate; or if understanding the word is of secondary importance.

Slang should only be used in dialogue and first-person narration, and it probably is a good idea to avoid slang words that mean different things in different regions.

Cyrus Keith

Disagree. To an extent. They add flavor and spice to your characters. But give them a context so readers can keep up. I have several characters in my books that are either foreign, or speak in a foreign language. I keep it short, use it rarely, and make sure the meaning is implicit in the context. Example, in Unalive, Jenna says to a nurse in Tahiti, “This is critical, Madame … This woman is a very important diplomatic attaché. We must leave for Europe immediately, for her safety. Nous devons partir tout de suite. C’est trés importante.” She finished in French, to make sure she was understood.

H. Anthe Davis

Disagree.  One reason is because of my main genre, fantasy, which has a history of using constructed (imaginary) languages — see Tolkien with Quenya, not to mention all the made-up and tweaked terminology that any story that deals with magic, monsters, et cetera has to get into.  I have several of my own conlangs, and while I try not to use them too much, conlang linguistics is important to the story in places.  Likewise, I think that in things like literary fiction, the use of foreign words or regional slang can be very evocative of place, time, et cetera, and possibly necessary to works translated from a foreign language, where there might be no real equivalent of the desired concept in the translated-to language.  I mean, who would strike deja vu from a manuscript just because it’s not English?  (Pardon my lack of accent marks etc.)

Paul B. Spence

Unless you need to use it. Not everything translates well into English. Ennui, for example. Conveys far more in one word than you can express in a paragraph. I don’t even like French, and I like this word.

Elizabeth Rhodes

This is a rule? It’s news to me. I don’t agree with it in any case. Regional/foreign words are great for establishing that sense of place or filling out a character by giving them an origin. And do we really want all characters to sound the same?

There are also connotations and emotions conveyed much well with regional slang or the dreaded profanity. I dare anyone to put together a string of words that have the same impact as a well-placed “Fuck!”

Jay Dee Archer

Totally disagree. I’m fascinated by languages, and I find that foreign words and slang bring a lot of flavour to a book. If it takes place in the southern US, I want to see some southern slang. If it’s fantasy, and there’s a culture with another language, I want to see some of that language. Of course, it shouldn’t be overdone to the point where you can’t understand what’s going on. But when it’s done right, it makes it quite a bit more interesting. Although it’s not literature, I’m very interested in learning the Klingon language. But I’d also like to learn Quenya.

Another thing about slang is that it can provide you with a clue about when and where the story takes place. Slang evolves over time, and when used in the correct context, it can make the story feel much more authentic.

How about you?

Do you think slang and foreign languages should be used in literature? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “Authors Answer 124 – Should You Write With Plain Language?”

  1. I’m a reader. Sometimes a dilettante (one of them thar foreign words) word jotter in a blog. I’ve never heard of this rule. I hope most authors haven’t either, and the ones that have—I hope they ignore it. Now, filling your book with obscure local gibberish would probably neither serve the author nor reader well. I love Umberto Eco. “Plain English?” I think not. I stretched my high school level Latin knowledge thin reading his books, and would have reference material handy for wtf? moments during enjoying his books. Tom Robbins’ patter won’t be mistaken for plain, easy English, but what a word ride you get. Fifty Shades of Whatever? Plain English and plain awful, and wildly successful. I guess it depends on who you want for readers, what kind of story you are telling, and how important your word choices are for creating the world you are describing.

  2. I think slang/colloquialisms, foreign/invented words, and “plain language” are all different things, which makes this question difficult to answer with a simple yes or no.

    I think slang or colloquialisms, used in moderation, adds a distinctive voice to a story. (Slang — invented slang, at that — didn’t seem to harm A Clockwork Orange at all.)

    I think foreign or invented words, when used in such a way that the reader can understand what they mean from context, also add an interesting touch to a story. (I get annoyed sometimes at the insistence from certain fantasy authors that ALL elven characters, in anyone’s story, must use something resembling Tolkien’s languages. *shakes head* A bit of originality would be nice. And also fewer umlauts.)

    As for “plain language”… I do not in any way agree with people who insist that small words are always the best words. I’m stubborn. I refuse to nerf my own vocabulary for the convenience of people who don’t even read much anyway.

  3. I think there’s an important distinction between fictional terms, and slang. Some stories, most notably fantasy and scifi, sometimes feature concepts and creatures that simply don’t exist in our world, necessitating that a new term be coined.

    Slang, in my opinion, is substituting one word or phrase for another. In that case I think there’s a balance between the subtle subtext of the different words, and the clarity of the story.

    I think Tracy Lynn Tobin makes a good point with her examples of “soda” vs “pop” and “bus” vs “big yellow limousine”.

    In the case of “soda” vs “pop”, the most common misinterpretation of “pop” would probably be a father, and a person is very different from a beverage, so that would be easily cleared up. “Bus” vs “big yellow limousine” is more difficult because someone could picture “a big yellow limousine”, which may seem odd, but since both buses and limousines are automotive vehicles, it’s easier to continue misunderstanding.

    A lot of times I think it’s a situational choice, between the cultural subtext that’s being conveyed, and the risk of confusion.
    One possible solution might be to hang a lantern; have one of the characters also express confusion, or otherwise remark on the speaker’s habit of referring to buses that way.

  4. I think both are acceptable in moderation, if they support the story. Sometimes I encounter an unfamiliar word that is neither foreign nor slang. If I can’t figure it out from the context, I will refer to a dictionary. I do the same for foreign or slang words. But if I have to interrupt my reading too much for this, then I put the book aside.

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