I. What is Vernacular?
Vernacular (pronounced ver-NACK-you-lar) is everyday speech. It’s just the way people talk in day-to-day life. The opposite of vernacular is formal writing – the sort of language you would use in papers or while addressing a foreign diplomat.
There’s a sliding scale from vernacular to formal writing, and many writers use a mix of both. This article, for example, has many vernacular touches, but is mostly written in formal language.
Vernacular often differs from place to place, since people in different regions have slightly different ways of speaking. For example, the word “y’all” is a very common vernacular term in the American South (and increasingly popular elsewhere). Similarly, in parts of Appalachia and western Pennsylvania the equivalent vernacular term would be “you’uns.”
Vernacular and formal writing are the main forms of diction, or styles of speaking/writing.
II. Examples of Vernacular
“And it’s all for me grog, me jolly, jolly grog!” (Irish folk song)
Folk songs are usually written in vernacular. This one has a couple of very Irish touches – for one, the word “me” is used to replace “my.” The word “grog” is also an informal Irish term for beer.
In creative writing, the present tense is a great way to give your story a vernacular feel. Most novels are written in the past tense (“It was a dark and stormy night”), but this isn’t actually an accurate reflection of everyday speech. If you listen to people around you telling stories, they often use the present tense: “So I’m at the grocery store, and I go to pick up a loaf of bread, and you’ll never believe what I see sitting there on the shelf!”
III. The Advantages and Risks of Vernacular
Vernacular has the advantage of sounding natural. A more conversational style is easier to read, flows more easily, and often creates a more personal bond between writer and reader. In addition, it’s sometimes clearer, since vernacular language sometimes gives the writer easy ways to express things that might be harder to express in formal writing.
Too much vernacular can sound totally messed up though, you know? Like, what if I just started putting txt msg abbreviations all over the place and forgot to punctuate this article lol that wd look so ridic! In most kinds of writing, some amount of formal language is helpful.
And in a few cases, the vernacular is absolutely lethal to your writing. The best example is cover letters. In most industries, your cover letter is supposed to be a formal introduction to possible employers. If you write in vernacular, the employer may think that you are not taking the job seriously, or even that you’re uneducated. Of course, this is kind of silly – after all, why should we see a lack of seriousness in something as simple as a harmless contraction? There’s really no reason for it. It’s just the way the business and academic worlds work. But in order to break into those worlds you have to learn to avoid vernacular writing.
IV. Examples of Vernacular in Literature
“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.” (Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn)
In this quote, a slave is speaking in strong dialect. Mark Twain frequently used vernacular and dialect to evoke a strong image of the way people spoke and behaved in the South. In the modern world, his books are often deemed offensive because of the way the slave characters speak. However, the dialect is not inaccurate in this case – because of the way they were raised, most slaves did speak differently from free citizens. (It would certainly be offensive if the character was a shopkeeper or lawyer who happened to be black.) But for some people, any use of this “Black dialect” has echoes of racism, and therefore comes across as offensive. Is Twain’s use of dialect offensive? It’s up to you to decide.
“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” (King James Bible, Genesis 1:31)
Back in the 17th century, this was actually considered vernacular! This was more or less the way ordinary people spoke at the time. Today, of course, it doesn’t sound vernacular at all because we’ve changed the way we talk. That’s why we have the New International Version of the Bible (NIV), which is updated every few decades to be more vernacular. The NIV translation of Genesis 1:31 is: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
V. Examples of Vernacular in Popular Culture
Modern politicians increasingly use vernacular in their speeches. Before the age of mass media, this was quite rare – politicians would use very formal, lofty language to indicate their education and the seriousness of their job. Today, though, it’s fairly common to hear politicians use vernacular expressions like “you betcha” or “hell yeah.”
Personal blogs tend to be pretty vernacular. For example, if you read blogs for a while you’ll probably see the word “um,” as in “um, really?” If you think about it, this makes no sense. “Um” is just a noise that people use to hold space while they think about what they want to say. Why would you bother to write that down? The obvious answer is that it makes the writing sound more natural – it imitates the way people speak in real conversation.
VI. Related Terms
Slang (also called “colloquialism”) is the vernacular of a particular group, especially a youth sub-culture like punk or hip-hop culture. Colloquialisms are highly informal and should always be avoided in formal writing.
Jargon is the special language spoken by people in a particular field or profession. For example, sailors have all sorts of jargonistic terms for various parts of a ship. Similarly, sociologists have jargon terms for their work, as do lawyers, chefs, surgeons, etc. So should you use jargon in formal writing? It depends on the audience. If you’re delivering a paper at a conference and your whole audience is going to be made up of cardiologists, you can use cardiology jargon in the paper; but if you’re writing for a broader audience, you should avoid jargon.
Sometimes, authors will “write in dialect,” or misspell words in a way that imitates the actual speech of a particular person. In addition to vernacular terms, it also shows the actual sounds of the person’s speech.
Formal speech: Unfortunately, we will need to go there ourselves.
Vernacular: Shoot, I reckon we’ll have to get on up there ourselves, huh?
Dialect: Shee-oot, ah ricken we’ll have t’ git on up thar arselves, huh?
Although writing in dialect provides more detail than other forms of writing, you have to be careful. For one thing, it can be confusing – readers have to figure out what you’re writing, which is not as much of a problem with vernacular. More importantly, writing in dialect can come across as very offensive. To see this, imagine a racist depiction of an African American talking in a silly dialect. Such images were often used in the past to demean black people, and that racism still has echoes today.