How to Use Slang When Writing Dialogue

I wrote 5000 words like a boss yesterday and it only took me two hours to bang it out!

The U.S. of After, the first part of my new novel This Broken Earth arrives in digital book stores on August 1st, and I’m nearing the completion of the first draft.  Each chapter of the novel is titled with a character name with each character lending their own first person voice to the story.  One of the tools I used to offset certain characters was the use of slang.  However, I am not as hip as my students (as they will readily tell you) and don’t know all the latest slang terms or their proper (or rather improper) usage, so I need a little help.

Here are a couple of websites I have found that help me find the right slang terms:

1.  The Urban Dictionary – This website is a great resource to find the right slang for a city dweller.  It is also good for the technojunkie teen who is up on all the newest and latest trends in slang laden speech.  From this resource, I found out about “funkdafied” which is another word for “crazy” or “insane” and a deliciously funny slang term meaning when a person of an older generation nags a person of the younger generation: “oldbaggery”.

2.  The Online Slang Dictionary – This site is for looking up several slang terms for a commonly used word.  Think of it like a thesaurus for slang terms.  For example, if I look up the word “attractive” I will get words like “clean up good”, “macadocious”, and “kevorka”.  “Kevorka”, it turns out, originated on Seinfeld when Kramer suddenly fell in love with every member of the opposite sex.

3.  Everything Else – This list of slang sites is priceless.  It has slang from all over the world, and so I use it for characters who are not from my region, but also to get some tasty slang from the U.S.  This wonderful person has compiled a comprehensive list of slang sites and it is bookmarked on my computer for further reference.

A few tips about using slang:

1.  Use It Sparingly – When using too much slang, the character comes off sounding forced or extremely fake.  Sprinkle just enough slang to add color to the writing, but don’t overdo it.

2.  Use It Properly – Believe it or not, there is a grammar to using slang.  The above websites always list the part of speech in which the words are categorized.  Bad grammar is bad grammar with or without slang.

3.  Use It Artfully – Slang used in the right situations can make for wonderfully fun dialogue that adds to characterization.  It can set a certain character apart from the character who seems more highly educated and does not use slang in their speech at all.  It can be used for humor when a person who does not use slang tries to use it.  The use of slang can be one of a novelist’s greatest tools or greatest Achilles heels.  It is up to you to work it in in a way that is natural and that flows well.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

11 thoughts on “How to Use Slang When Writing Dialogue

  1. Can any good soul advise me here? In my written dialogue between characters I choose to use a phrase like “I wanna see em” rather than the grammatically correct “I want to see him”. My aim is to have the reader not only see my character’s spoken word but more importantly hear the phrase in their mind as they read it. Stilted, unnatural speech is not how real people sound. Of course narration should in general, always use correct grammar. So how should I punctuate “em” and is it acceptable to use “em” as a substitute for “Him” or should it be “im” for “him” and “em” for “them”? It seems to me that written dialogue should always be realistic and mirror the way people actually talk.

  2. Thanks for this resource! While using slang, do we write it in italics, as you did in your first line, or should it be enclosed in quotation marks? I find the quotation marks messy in this case. Look forward to your response! TIA

    1. Slang should be written in dialogue or as the voice of the character, and should be obvious to the reader. Use of slang in fiction is becoming more and more common, but when writing in third person it should not be used.

  3. Great list of resources! Thanks! I’m someone who needs to use more slang to differentiate my characters. I think I lean too much toward making them all speak properly, and then they all sound English or something. 😀 Thanks for posting!

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