What's more important - Natural Sounding Dialogue or Grammatically Correct Dialogue?

Thanks everyone for your interesting contributions! We’ve had lots of interesting points raised over the last four days, but as this discussion appears to be naturally coming to an end, the poll is now closed. Thanks again! :slight_smile:


I’m in a Wattpad Writers discord server where we talk about the site, share snippets of our writing for critique and just generally chat about literature.

Recently a friend of mine posted an exerpt of her latest book (I have permission to share this exchange, don’t worry :joy:) and one of the lines was:

“Nah, my mam was always giving me into trouble for skipping school.”

This line sounded like nonsense to me and I suggested that scold, rebuke, or reprimand be used instead of ‘giving me into trouble’.

My friend responded "Kawi, I love you but I physically cringe at the idea of a teenage boy from [redacted] using words like scold, rebuke, or reprimand in that context."

The conversation then moved onto whether it was more important for dialogue to be grammatically correct or to sound natural (particularly for books that use less widespread forms of English, like Australian English, Scottish English, or Singaporean English).

We’re both of the opinion that it’s more immportant for the character dialogue to sound natural, but my friend also mentioned that one of the biggest complaints they receive on their wattpad books is that their “grammar is bad” or that “these sentences are wrong and don’t make any sense” similar to how I challenged the giving me in trouble line.

So I’d like to hear from a wider audience, what’s more important to you when it comes to writing dialogue? That it’s grammatically correct? Or that it sounds like real natural speech for a character of X background?

  • Natural sounding dialogue
  • Grammatically correct dialogue

0 voters

Dialect is more important than grammar. I’d rather hear the characters than instantly understand what they’re saying, because it gives them color beyond measure.

15 Likes

Dialogue is supposed to sound like your character.

I’m very peculiar about character voice. If all your characters sound the same it makes the story seem artificial/robotic.

13 Likes

while natural dialogue is definitely more important, i think it’s quite rare that natural dialogue would hinder the grammar.

9 Likes

Yes, me too! I especially enjoy getting to know how different characters perceive the world through their unique voices :slight_smile:

1 Like

Sometimes the grammar is fine, but people don’t know the dialect. Like Ebonics/AAVE has its own grammar rules, but if someone that speaks standard English sees it they think it’s just bad English.

5 Likes

Same thing with some Scottish English dialects.

2 Likes

Very true. I think stylistic choices to ignore grammar in favour of an unusual dialect is a really interesting way to flavour a story and give characters unique voices.

3 Likes

What you meant, I think, was “giving me trouble.” It sounds more natural—it’s what a teenage boy would say (never heard “giving me INTO trouble.”) “Rebuke” would sound so out of place!

(So this dialogue isn’t necessarily natural-sounding to begin with—but that also depends on where the character is from.)

3 Likes

Yes, as @saintc mentioned, the friend whose dialogue I critiqued as incorrect writes in Scottish English, which - while correct in Scotland - comes across as ‘bad English’ or ‘poor grammar’ to those outside the country. Similar to dialects like AAVE, or other non-standard forms such as Australian English.

It’s a hard line to walk, I think.

2 Likes

If it’s inside quotes, all grammar bets are off. I’ll often mangle or misuse grammar to give characters a more distinct voice or to make their country of origin / level of education / social class more obvious.

If it’s outside quotes (unless we’re in first person or the deepest of deep third limited), the grammar needs to work, or at least be perfectly internally consistent with the narrative PoV.

5 Likes

Yeah, and sometimes you can also use dialogue to portray personality. I have a character who is a nervous wreck — and I portray that in his dialogue with him being a splicer (cutting sentences in weird sections), dropping syllables (appreciate = 'ppreciate. Them = 'em), and using pausing sounds like ‘em’ and ‘err.’

Dialogue can do a lot of characterization work for you if you let it.

2 Likes

I’d never heard of “giving me into trouble” either! But said author assured me that no, that was deliberate and was a very common expression where they were from.

But you and I, having never heard of this expression, would both read that line and think “Oh, that’s a mistake.” This is where it becomes troublesome, I think. How far do you lean into the local vernacular to keep character dialogue natural and authentic, without turning away readers who would just assume that you have bad grammar or haven’t proofread?

2 Likes

Another interesting point!

How do people feel about first-person narration leaning into ‘incorrect’ (when compared to standard British or American English) local grammar conventions?

Then I’m back to saying it’s totally fine and they’re right. If it fits, it fits! I don’t speak grammatically IRL, that’s for sure.

1 Like

As long as the character isn’t a stickler for grammatical rules or in a formal situation, natural dialogue is always better.

Natural doesn’t mean unreadable, basic grammar should be present.

So text language shouldn’t bleed into language too much, though slang is OK.

“Wait 4 me, gtg 2 my BFF’s place. One sec.”

Dialogue is the BEST way to show a person’s character. Interactions, thoughts, the situation, and the personality of the character in one go? Too good to mess up with, “Mother, could you halt for two minutes? I would like to pay a visit to my dear associate.”

3 Likes

Haha. I think you just summed up my problem with purple prose. I don’t mind purple prose if it’s in third person and doesn’t affect dialogue, but when your story is in first person and it’s supposed to sound like a 16 year old talking we’re going to have problems.

2 Likes

I love that, a great example of show don’t tell!

Much as I try my hardest, I definitely don’t speak with perfect grammar IRL either :joy:

I beta read for quite a few authors in that discord, and this whole discussion has given me a lot to think about. Where do you draw the line? How much local slang is too much? :thinking:

1 Like

Third option — the dialogue that is fun and easy to read, and that is memorable.

1 Like