What Is a Colloquialism? What It Is and What It Ain’t

Wondering, “What is a colloquialism?” You’re not alone. Our guide will explain how these words that make up casual conversation function in English.

Colloquialisms are informal, everyday words and phrases that aren’t formal—the type of speech you use when talking to a friend. When writing in a simple, everyday style, you probably already use colloquialisms, especially in your dialogue between characters. These terms or phrases are key when you want your readers to be able to relate to your characters and see them as real people. 

Using colloquialisms in your writing stops it from sounding stuffy, as colloquial language allows your characters to communicate with informal speech, the same way you’d use informal language when you’re using a casual communication style with coworkers, friends, or other social groups. 

You’re Already Using Colloquialisms – Yes, Really!

What is a colloquialism?
When writing, colloquialisms can be used as a literary device that allows your readers to relate to your characters

You use colloquial phrases and words when using regional language, slang, or speaking informally to friends. Unless you’re spending most of your day working on formal writing or in a courtroom, it’s likely that colloquial words are in most sentences that you speak to others.

When writing, colloquialisms can be used as a literary device that allows your readers to relate to your characters. How your characters speak to one another (or how they narrate your story to your readers) can provide insight into their education level, location, upbringing, and more. No one speaks formally with the people closest to them, and seeing how your characters communicate with one another can also provide your readers with information about the closeness of your character relationships.

How you’d relay a message to a coworker in person slightly differs from how you’d type up the same information in an email. Using colloquialisms is a normal part of daily speech; speaking this way comes naturally to most people. Check out this list of palindrome words, sentences, and phrases.

Colloquial Vs. Formal Language

Most of us are so used to hearing colloquial language that it’s easier to notice when someone isn’t using it. If you’ve ever heard someone make such an effort to speak formally that it sounds like they’re addressing Congress, you’ve heard an effort to eliminate colloquial language. Formal real-life dialogue sounds stuffy, fake, and like the speaker is trying to prove their smarts to others.

While formal writing has a place (for example, in a research report or dissertation), it’s not the best idea when you’re trying to create characters who will feel real to your readers. When working to make dialogue sound natural, you’ll want to consider how your characters would speak if they were real. Their upbringing, region, personality, and relationship with the person they speak affect how they talk.

Using a distinction between colloquial and formal language can help your readers infer your characters’ relationships with one another. For example, if your character speaks informally to their friends but switches it up when talking to a grandparent, your reader could infer that formality is valued in their family or that they do not feel as comfortable with their family as they do with their friends.

As a beginning writer, you might need to fight the urge to make your characters speak formally. Remember, when writing a story, you want your readers to feel in the room with your character, watching what you’re describing. This is tough if it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking in the way you’re creating your story’s dialogue. You might also be interested in learning what is present perfect tense.

Slang, Jargon, and Colloquial Speech

Slang, Jargon, and Colloquial Speech
Jargon usually refers to words or expressions that people use in their career field that wouldn’t be easily understood by people outside of the field

Slang refers to unique words used by people in particular groups (usually by teenagers) that aren’t as likely to be used by people in other groups in the same region. For example, college students might use the term “getting lit” to describe a night of partying, but older people in the region wouldn’t know what they’re referring to.

Sometimes, slang becomes colloquial over time. A few decades ago, only young people used the word “cool” to describe something positively. Now, the word is used as a normal part of the vocabulary across the United States. You might also be interested in learning what is faulty parallelism.

Jargon usually refers to words or expressions that people use in their career field that wouldn’t be easily understood by people outside of the field. For example, people in the restaurant industry are familiar with terms like “corner,” “behind,” and “86,” while others might be clueless about what it means to hear these terms yelled in the kitchen with a packed dining room.

Colloquialisms and Geography

Colloquialisms and Geography
A Southern and Western term for soda

The vast majority of people in a region share colloquial speech. Let’s dig in and take a look at how colloquialisms change across different areas. We often only think about how people in our region speak once we travel elsewhere. People in Northern states may be surprised when they travel to the South and hear sneakers referred to exclusively as “tennis shoes.”

Recognizable colloquialisms in various regions of the U.S. include:

  • Bubblers: A New England term for water fountain
  • Y’all: A Southern term to address a group of people
  • Pop: A Southern and Western term for soda
  • Wicked: A New England term used to describe something great or interesting
  • Gnarly: A surf culture demographic term now used up and down the West Coast to describe something cool, challenging, or difficult
  • Ope: A term used by Midwesterners to take the place of “oops” or “uh-oh.”

Colloquialism Examples in Literature

You’ve probably never thought about it, but your favorite book characters likely feel familiar due to their use of informal words and everyday speech. Writers like J.D. Salinger, Alice Walker, and Mark Twain are known for using colloquialisms, making the socio-economic status of characters, geographical location, and time period of their writing clear to the reader. Some great examples of colloquialisms in literature include:

When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’ I’ll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out.”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.”

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up the flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

These examples draw readers into the character’s world, as the authors use colloquialisms as a literary tool that tells the reader more about the time and place the character is experiencing in the story. This makes it easier for the author to show—not tell—readers what’s happening in the story.

When to Use Colloquialism in Writing 

Writing colloquially allows your readers to get to know your characters, learn more about their environment, and understand how they relate to others. When you’re using informal language between characters, writing informally can be smart.

A word of caution: if your story is set in a region with which you aren’t familiar, it’s important that you study colloquialisms carefully. You may want to run your work by someone from the area to ensure you’re correctly using regional language.

When doing formal writing (such as a report or business writing), colloquialisms are not acceptable. This goes for academic non-fiction as well. Generally speaking, use colloquialisms to show relationships or help your reader get to know your characters. If you’re simply stating facts, steer clear. Loved this? Check out our guide with biased language examples!