Blogging Is A Dialect:
Do You Speak It?

Earth Boy

I have a vivid memory of using the word “idiosyncrasy” in fifth grade during a group project. I didn’t know the definition, just the word. This enraged a boy named Chance to the point where he spit on me and encouraged everyone else to do so. We all fought on the floor until the teacher pulled us apart.

I don’t blame the little ruffian, even though his favorite game was putting a bucket on his head and charging the wall. It was my fault. I’m a librarian and have always been one at heart. My parents pushed learning, curiosity, and books and that was the boy they created.

I failed to speak the dialect of my peers, and took my knocks for it. And on your blog, not speaking the right dialect can cost you relationships and readers.

What is a dialect?

Here’s one heinous example from a terrible poem by Fred Emerson Brooks called Foreigners on Santa Claus:

The bonnie Scotchman niver doot
Wi’ Scots Wauhai!
That Santa Claus goes a’ aboot . . .

Oh, man. This eventually leads to:

We have ze Santa Claus een France
We see him when we get ze chance

But dialects don’t necessarily involve bad accents.

Let’s include jargon as well. Doctors speak the dialect of medicine, bodybuilders speak the dialect of pec-tasticness, bloggers speak the dialect of plugins and trackbacks and tweets. Being fluent in the various dialects of your readers is a major key to successful blogging.

If something sucks, just say it sucks

The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote a wonderful essay about grammar wars (they do exist) in his book Consider the Lobster.

He suggests that the kids who know the big words on the playground are future social misfits. If what we might call “book talk” is your only dialect, you run the risk of alienating anyone who doesn’t communicate in that way. The more dialects you know, the more people you can make a connection with.

Wallace describes a boy striking out during a little league T-Ball game. Which of the following scenarios will serve him best with his peer group?

  1. He shouts “How incalculably dreadful!”
  2. He shouts “That sucks!” and stalks to the dugout.
  3. He roars and slams his bat into the ground before bursting into tears of rage (been there).

Most kids on the bench will identify more with the kid who shouts, “That sucks!”

Why write anything in a style that creates distance with your readers?

Successful blogging = relationships

If you’ve ever read Copyblogger before, you know any commandments and buzzwords of traffic building that I could quote you.

And so on . . . .

Why do you do any of these things? So readers won’t leave you. So they might even feel like coming back again tomorrow.

When you speak your readers’ language, you solidify the relationship. And that lets you use all the other copywriting techniques in the most productive way possible.

How do you learn the dialect of your readers?

Unless your blog has been a colossal failure, you probably already know the lingo readers want from you.

Look at your progress so far. It will show you how well you’ve been getting your message across.

What do readers want from you? What problems do you solve? Why are they reading your blog?

These questions should be in your head from day one.

If readers return often and your links grow steadily, you’re fine. Your relationships are solid and your language is appropriate to your goals.

But watch for warning signs. Beware of plummeting stats or emails that say: “Attention! I’ve noticed that you’re behaving like an imbecile and I hate you.”

Reevaluate often.

When in doubt, keep it simple

Here are some guidelines for writing that builds better relationships.

  • Don’t use elaborate words when simple ones will do.
  • Select words with your audience in mind.
  • The goal is to help your readers, not impress yourself. Let someone else be the smartest person in the room (or the blog).
  • There is no Nobel Prize for beautiful blogging. If you have literary aspirations, either write for a literary readership or write a book.
  • Break long sentences into shorter sentences when possible.
  • Learn when you can break the style rules — being too inflexible with your writing can get school-marmish if you’re too fussy.
  • Be yourself. If your readers expect you to say that something “sucks,” don’t say that it’s “incalculably dreadful” instead.

If you take nothing else from this

If I could say one thing today and make it stick, it would be this:

Don’t fall in love with your own cleverness, smarts, or talent. Let your readers and results reward your efforts. Forget what you think you know about yourself for a while.

Be humble and have fun. Remember, you’re here to help, not impress. After all, parroting a few big words didn’t make wiping that spit off my face any fun back in the fifth grade.

And in case you’re wondering…

I won that fight. Big time.

About the Author: Josh Hanagarne writes World’s Strongest Librarian, a blog with advice about coping with Tourette’s Syndrome, book recommendations, buying pants when you’re 6’8”, old-time strongman training, and so much more. Please subscribe to Josh’s Stronger, Smarter, Better Newsletter to stay in touch.

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Comments

  1. Anyone that quotes from the work of DFW is OK in my book. This also brings to mind the idea of “speaking the dialect” of your co-workers.

    If you seem to be using different words (or you can’t understand the terms they’re using), you need to raise your hand or at least Google them all and learn ASAP.

    Otherwise, bad things are in store…

  2. Interesting Josh, and I agree with what you say. One of the issues you didn’t cover is the problem many like me face as Europeans with a large US readership.

    I sometimes “catch” myself writing “American” and I have to be careful as it can come across as false, and therefore ruin the message.

    Phrases like “That Sucks!” really don’t work with a cut glass English accent!

  3. Wow, Josh! You are everywhere these days. Great post. It reminded me of that quote “kill your darlings”. I think you can extend the ideas of speaking the same dialect as your readers, even to blog design. The design should appeal to the readers, just as the language speaks to them.

  4. @Mike CJ. Mike, I’m seeing that more and more. I have a business partner in Australia. Whenever I’m telling him he doesn’t need to rush to get back to me, I usually say something like “at your convenience.” He finally told me that toilets are often called “conveniences” in Australia.

    I find it very easy to forget that even though I live in America, the blog is seen by people all over the world. Thanks for the reminder. Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind and that says something.

  5. Josh,

    It kinda goes back to the old writing advice: Kill your darlings. That cute, clever, awesome and oh-so-brilliant piece of dialogue or character description? Make it go away because it’s not really any of those things.

    George

  6. Josh, what a terrific article. Thank you for sharing this. I remember “dumbing myself down” in grade school because I was a book learner and did my homework. I was given an “F” for using a work that had more than 8 letters in it in the 3rd grade. Fortunately, I haven’t let that stop me and now feel comfortable sharing my input at a comfortable & engaging dialect with my peers and my clients. All my best to you.

  7. Great post, Josh. It’s good to be reminded of these tips. I find trying to write how you speak is a good start. I always remind myself to write in contractions. This post doesn’t suck! ;)

  8. @ Mike CJ – I agree – definitely write in your “native” language. I have a couple of Canadians who write for my web magazine. There is always the slight temptation to edit things (especially that dreaded issue of the u in words like “colour” and “favour”) but I leave them alone, to avoid making it appear as if an American has been tinkering with their article (and making it appear a bit fake) :)

  9. Josh! Good to see you here.

    Excellent post, I’m definitely guilty of falling in love with smarty-pants wordings. My sentences do get out of control in the length and complexity departments.

    Blame my youth. I was the smart kid and that’s how I got my approval. I’ve been in love with my own cleverness my whole life; I may be a lost cause.

    Even though I do it too much, I think there is a place for glib and flowery language. I like reading it when it’s done well. Copywriting is not always the best read, even though it may be the easiest. Hemingway is easy to read, what with his phobia of words with more than two syllables, but he was never my favorite and I know I’m not alone.

    But that is a great question to ask oneself while editing: does this create distance between me and my readers?

    I think my readers have come to expect my word choice to be a bit, uh, ornate, but I do go too far sometimes. And that sucks!

  10. Good write.

    Anybody that bends steel and crafts words like you gets my respect.

    Regards,
    Shane

  11. I loved those beginning anecdotes. They were a great example of “making the connection.”

  12. “How incalculably dreadful!” is a great way to convey what I think of blog posts with “there” instead of “their”, or “it’s” instead of “its”. Spell checkers are not enough, many bloggers need grammar checkers as well…

    To me it’s a reputation killer. I’ve read blog posts that would have made me subscribe to the RSS feed if it weren’t for the grammar mistakes, so I have to agree that writing well is as important as being relevant.

  13. Josh,
    In one to one conversations it’s easy to use the vocabulary that best fits the person we are talking with, but your article and several comments point to the fact that as bloggers we are speaking to a lot of different people, so we have to choose the dialect with the largest common denominator so
    “Don’t use elaborate words when simple ones will do” is
    good advice.

    Yet as you point out with: “at your convenience.” and Mike CJ with “that sucks” “english dialect” varies in different
    parts of the world and I had to learn “american dialect”
    when I first came to Washington State as an english and french speaking immigrant.

    Thanks for an interesting article,

    Fran

  14. “How incalculably dreadful” is much more my dialect than “that sucks,” but I’m learning. One nice thing about the Copyblogger readers is a lot of them are pretty comfortable with my native tongue.

    I really enjoyed the story this started out with.

  15. Absolutely. Simplicity is what readers like. Keep It Simple Stupid (the kiss principle) :)

  16. Josh, you make a good point: you should speak the language of your readers. Make your writing accessible to the largest possible group.

    In the process of doing so, however, we’ll have a tendency to “go too broad” and risk losing our voice.

    I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to concentrate on developing your own unique writing style first and determine what kind of audience it attracts. After you’ve done so you can work to cater to that audience. If the niche that seems attracted to your writing seems too narrow, then you can work to tweak your writing style.

  17. “incalculably dreadful” Now… that has a nice ring! I’ll have to put that in my toolbox for future usage. :-)

  18. I echo Jane’s comment — your anecdotes make the connection immediate. Brought me back to elementary school days. Embarrassing in retrospect. My brother and I would spell aloud, as fast as we could, antidisestablishmentarianism. (Can you imagine using words like that on Twitter? You’d be out of characters!)

    Plus, in English grad school, a professor said, “If you’re tremendously in love with a sentence or a phrase, it’s probably bad.”

    Good lesson. Thanks!

  19. Josh, thank you for your informative post. I just launched my blog http://www.southwestwashingtonzest.com (about travel, recreation, people, basically the good life in southwest Washington State) and am working hard to find my “voice.” Thanks for your ideas!

  20. The impress yourself part is what traps a lot of us. You’re right that if we think our language is so beautiful, we should consider a different medium to express.

    I recently blogged about 3 personality types to avoid at all times. I’m now working to avoid being one of those;-) Oy vey — not easy.

  21. Some thoughts on the rules:
    - “There is no Nobel prize for beautiful blogging” Yet. If this medium matures, there will be.

    - On the other advice, I whole heartedly agree that shorter/simpler is generally the better way to go. What I fear is that people tend this way anyways, or become reticent to use big words, or more accurately, to write about complex ideas.

    I read the New Yorker, and its language is both straightforward, and complex. I encourage complex ideas, and good thought. langaueg goes hand in hand with that.

    @Katlin – Linking to your site in the URL section is fine, the double link seems needless.

  22. I Loved this artile, good work, thanks

  23. This is a great post and gives advice everyone can use! To blog is one thing, but to blog well is another and more people should take the time to learn the difference.

  24. Oh, snap! You’re not allowed to be the world’s strongest librarian. I thought I already knew the world’s strongest librarian, and have used that exact phrase repeatedly. Now I hear there’s a contender for the title? One who even has the URL? Now I don’t know what to think. Should I have you guys square off? Should we compare deadlift numbers? How very unsettling.

  25. @Johnny B Truant. I’d love to compare deadlift numbers. Send that gent my way. Of course, I’m good at semantics and strength means different things. I’d probably just say I was referring to “strongest” as in “strongest odor.”

  26. Hey Josh,

    Thanks for the friendly reminder that communicating with each other means speaking the same language (more or less). The KISS method and remembering your audience are key to making connections – in person, online or on paper.

    Cheers and keep up the great work.

  27. I think he’s up around 560 or so. Not sure; I gave up on chasing him around 475. Ironically, his grammar sucks, so you definitely have the stronger grammar skills. If you receive a borderline illiterate-sounding comment on your blog soon, that’d be the fellow.

  28. @Johnny B Truant. He’s definitely got me beat on the deadlift. whew!

  29. A good friend of mine once said, “Intelligence is being able to communicate with others.” He was a social butterfly (shocker, I know). I think the bigger point was that if people can’t understand you, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how great your idea is.

  30. Great piece, and for me the essential ‘dialect’ of blogging is being yourself. It’s interesting how difficult people find this at first, but ultimately how liberating it can be. I’ve seen people find their blogging ‘voice’ and off they go. Remember the first time you sent an email? Posting on a blog can be the same. But slowly you start to get a feel for it. Eventually, people even start saying ‘posting to/on a blog’ instead of ‘posting a blog’… ;) But I do like the way you talk about dialect rather than etiquette. That takes a lot of the fear out of it. Nice one.

  31. If you think my black eye is bad, you should have seen the other guy!

    From a young age, working in my family bakery introduced me to a variety of people from all over the world: Koreans, Russians, Greeks, etc.

    My family would learn 5 or 10 spoken words in each language so we could communicate with our customers even if it just meant saying good morning, thank you, and see you tomorrow.

    The smiles on their faces made all the difference in the world because they could relate to us, even though we didn’t fully speak their language.

    Pete | The Tango Notebook

  32. Josh, what if Johnny’s other librarian rival turns out to be the guy that spit on you as a kid?

  33. Great article Josh. Being an Aussie, I have to watch the dialect issue big time.

    Most of my readers are from the US but it seems they enjoy the different ways I say things, use of slang and even the different way of living here (I know this through the comments and the intros written about me for guest posts I’ve done). I think part of the appeal of my blog is that I am Aussie and use a slightly different dialect.

    I have, however, set up a slang page to link slang words to, as most people outside of Australia would have no idea of their meaning (like berko, chook and sparrow’s fart for instance).

    Thanks Josh, another slightly unhinged, funny and informative post from you! ;)

  34. Excellent and a blessing of a article for an European… (did that make sence… ;)

    Dough I wished you had the word accent also in there.. If people had been as passionate and loving towards my blog as they are to my accent… I would be blogging with my accent every day…. maybe I need too ;)

    Cheers.. Are

  35. Hate to be a wet noodle here, but does that mean we have to forever dispense with 90% of the wonderfully descriptive English language simply because most Americans are illiterate and uninterested in big words? Yeah, I know about dummying down, what about about occasionally using words that are ninth-grade reading level placed in context so that readers can figure out the meaning?

    My biggest pet peeve about bloggers is the god-awful grammar and spelling. Does no no one proofread their work?? This drives me nuts.

  36. Tons of excellent advice in here. And it all points to the fact that anyone starting a blog in a new niche not only needs to know what the niche is saying, but how they are saying it as well. This is vital.

  37. I completely agree with fern! While I’ll keep my readers in mind, I won’t dumb my writing down. I see what you’re saying, and it’s good advice. But, for some people, being themselves IS being proper. Yes, you can bend the rules sometimes – and sometimes it’s needed – but being yourself isn’t always being like everyone else. ;-)

  38. Thanks for reminding!

    I have realized just now, that most of the time I try to use british words like “astonishing” and “impeccable” when I should say “cool” and “awesome”

    Igor

  39. I enjoyed reading this post and I agree with previous comments about grammar. I think spelling and proofreading is often missed in blog posts, but I think the point is that bloggers need to think about their audience and what they want to read. It’s not about insulting their intelligence it’s about reaching a wide range of people, and I think you hit the nail on the head in this post. Thanks Josh.

  40. I see both sides of this (in addition to knowing an even stronger librarian). On one hand, I agree big-time that many bloggers (and writers in general) use words and phrasing that is overly big and complicated as some sort of self-gratification mechanism… like you said, kind of to impress themselves. The classic example that I’ve seen again and again is to not say “utilize” when any normal person would say “use.” This pretty much refers to jargon… businessy types trying too hard to use too many big words. It’s the extreme end of the spectrum, and probably not what my fellow gramophones and vocabophiles (if that’s a word, which it isn’t) are talking about anyway.

    And then there’s the issue of usability. Steve Krug wrote a great book on usability called “Don’t Make Me Think.” He’s mainly talking about positioning buttons and whatnot, but it applies to vocab too. People act like they’re brain dead online. If they have to think for three seconds instead of two in a given situation (for instance), they’ll sometimes skip out, and you’ve lost a reader or a sale. Just because they’re lazy. We all are, online. You don’t have to like it for it to be true.

    But on the other hand, I’m speaking as a grammar Nazi, a guy who has written hopefully funny posts on the ways people screw up the language, like a celeb who said she would LITERALLY explode if she couldn’t act. God, imagine the mess.

    So yeah, I never back off from being anal and from using big words, if they’re appropriate and not just there to impress myself. It is, as Ham said, part of being myself. So I see a fine line.

    Lastly, I see using esoteric words (like “esoteric”) kind of like I saw the best jokes on the first few years of The Simpsons, or any really funny show like that: The best jokes were the obscure ones that nobody but a handful of people would get. That’s what made them so funny – the fact that if you DID get it, it was doubly satisfying. Same for “getting” more complex language, as long as it’s not overdone.

    (In an episode of Futurama, they watch a horse race end in such a close tie that they call it a “quantum finish.” The judges then freeze-frame the finish and get out electron microscopes to determine who won. When they declare the winner, Professor Farnsworth jumps up angrily, tears up his ticket, and says, “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!” I think that me and like a dozen people found that super-hilarious. Exactly the kind of obscure joke I’m talking about!)

  41. Well said. It’s not that we should “dumb down” our prose, but that we should write to be understood by our audience.

    I think many fail because they focus on impressing people with their knowledge and vocabulary. Some do it in an attempt to show their authority or expertise (I know the buzzwords in this field, so by using them you’ll know I’m an expert.) Instead, while they attempt to “leverage their synergies to create new conversation paradigms” they leave us rolling our eyes wondering how such pompous fools got through university without learning to communicate.

    I like to think of blogging as teaching. If I have some idea that I want to share with readers, then I must explain it in a way that they will clearly understand. My mission is to share knowledge or information, not to challenge my readers. If I use jargon, unwieldy sentences or obtuse messages I will fail because my message will get lost in translation. But if I’m clear and direct, they will understand and come back for more.

  42. Good write.
    Thank

  43. Definitely.

    Frank Kern calls this as “magic words”. Sorta make people feel that they’re in a “tribe” or a special “group”. It’s a very strong tactic to keep people coming back.

    Congrats on winning the fight btw ;-)

  44. Josh this reminds me of advice I got from a writing mentor early in my career – “Write like ya talk!” . Writing the same way you talk is a great way to make sure you are not only understood but that your unique voice comes through. Of course, if you talk in fancy language, you should write that way – but you’re unlikely to connect with the very people you are trying to inspire.

    I read everything I write out loud before publishing. Takes two seconds and makes a huge difference in the quality of the communication.

  45. I’d be wise to remember this lovely post (indeed, it reminds me of Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” which I adore),
    but it’s challenging to do so while living in a city where locals don’t pronounce the letter ell and can’t differentiate between the past progressive and present tenses.

  46. good post buddy !!! my opinion is bloggers try to convience and so they use all this phrases or words .. its not healthy sometimes .. they have to concentrate on short phrases that ‘s not being ornamented !!

  47. Great post! I noticed this same thing just last night when I was writing- almost used the word “abridged” in my first sentence. That’s what I get for loving English. Luckily, I came to my senses and changed it before publishing. Now I’ll be sure to be more careful in the future- thanks for the reminder.

  48. I don’t like it when people hit me with words I don’t understand. They must realize that I am not going to check my pocket dictionary just to understand what their article is telling me.

    Just talk like you would outside of your computer and nobody gets hurt.

  49. I disagree. (Unfortunately)

    It would probably be better if I had the link to that old online tool based on Orwell’s Politics in the English Language but unfortunately no luck with Google keywords.

    It worked simply enough. You copy paste and instead of a spell checker, it would be a phrase checker and alert you to complicated words you were using.

    At first, I was wowed because any simple and free tool to help would have been great for anyone with problems communicating.

    Talking as if you’re speaking in real life doesn’t really work if in real life, you also have problems communicating.

    It REALLY REALLY ESPECIALLY REALLY doesn’t work when you already talk online as if you’re talking offline.

    There are lots of other factors why it doesn’t work but eventually I found I used the tool less and less because I would copy paste something long in it and it won’t detect anything redundant but it didn’t really help me better communicate my online posts.

    Just some of the few factors to prove why it doesn’t work are:

    1. Dialect always changes especially online. (Good luck making sense of LOLCATZ talk when you have no knowledge of the meme.)

    2. Most modern browsers support easy context menu searches of highlighted words.

    3. Any complicated words can be linkified to it’s definition.

    4. It still won’t change the fact that if you want to portray an issue in a more complex and complicated manner, brevity is lost and no amount of simple words will make your text seem shorter.

    5. You can apply every other copywriting advises on this blog and ignore this and it will still improve your article. You can apply every copywriting advises on this blog — including this article — and the added improvement is so nil it’s basically irrelevant. (Not to mention applying other advises would already make you go down the road of using less complicated words.)

    6. If this was really a big issue, no software maker would have made much of a profit online. (Every program eventually uses complicated tech jargon no matter the marketing.)

    7. If you have a dedicated community that comments regularly to any of your blog article, they will already suggest and clarify any word that seems confusing to them.

    Most importantly:

    The biggest flaw of this suggestion is that it assumes “complication of the word” is the issue and not the “message to the culture”.

    Yes, you did hint that there’s a cultural aspect with the whole “dialect of the readers”.

    Unfortunately your advises turned it all around on the word and that is what makes it the biggest flaw.

    Almost 99% of people who are passionate about their blogging, already consider making their articles “clear”.

    From my experience, it’s very rare to see someone who thinks: “Oh, I’ll say incalculably dreadful because “sucks” makes me sound dumber.”

    That just doesn’t happen unless the person already doesn’t care for their audience. By which case, they won’t really be needing this article or this article could simply be summed up into “Stop pretending you are smart.”

    Instead what normally happens is that sincere people encounter a situation where they don’t know how to communicate a point or a message as clearly as possible without going through a certain amount of length.

    A length that is neither short or long in their mind but focused on content. (Regardless whether the end result hits or misses the mark of clarity — they still tend to look towards aligning the message to the culture when they were typing it. It just constantly misses the mark.)

    Unfortunately this issue with using complicated words end up becoming used as a straw man because it’s much easier to scapegoat a word or a long sentence than it is to address the delivery of the content. This holds true both from the confused writer’s perspective and from the lazy critic’s side of the argument.

    Of course this being copyblogger, you’re not really saying that this is the only (or most likely) problem with why your article failed and pushed readers away.

    It’s just still worth noting because, even with the above factor, I feel you’re still creating a disingenuous straw-man just to sell the idea that the flaw you’re thinking of is really a flaw.

    For example, how does:

    “If you have literary aspirations, either write for a literary readership or write a book.”

    …make sense at all?

    You’re not talking about videobloggers here, you’re talking about bloggers.

    Do you mean to say that anyone who writes a book automatically gets published because they have “literary aspirations”?

    …or that every bestseller became a bestseller because the writer thought in this vague “literary aspirations” mindset instead of making their texts clear but informed?

    Even writing for a “literary readership” creates the fallacy that said blogger knows how to speak the dialect of the literary blog-reading community.

    In the end, the whole premise (or at least the advises) unravels and only seems agreeable because the problem seems like it exist and possesses major consequences.

  50. Thank you very much with regard to a really wonderful website! My spouse and i can easily think about countless web site that doesn’t supply helpful advice UNLIKE yours blogsite. Excellent!

  51. I usually had problems on languages. thank you for this information Josh.