Biting off more ‘informal language’ than you can chew

When we talked about “bizarro” words last week, we promised to talk this week about the difference between “colloquial” and “slang.” Just for fun, we’ll throw in “idiom” as well.

They’re all part of our “informal” language, weapons in our arsenal to convey the tone of something we are saying as well as its substance. Just as you change your language to make it simpler for a child or for someone who understands little English, you also change how much colloquialism, slang, and idiom you use depending on your audience.

“Colloquial” is an umbrella term that can encompass all informal language, including idiom, slang, and jargon (the specialized language of a profession or group). “Colloquial” basically just means “informal.” Using a contraction like “can’t” or “isn’t” is colloquial, because the “formal” usage is “cannot” or “is not.” Much of journalistic writing is “colloquial,” because it’s meant to be conversational rather than formal. (At least, it should be.)

While most style guides allow many “colloquialisms” like contractions because they are conversational, some are frowned upon, like using “like” in expressions like “she was, like, really informal.” The Associated Press Stylebook advises against using “colloquialisms” like “pled” instead of “pleaded,” “snuck” instead of “sneaked,” and “cop” instead of “police officer.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, reflecting  The Times’s more formal tone, includes dozens of anti-colloquial entries, advising against using “phony” in favor  of the more formal “fake,” “fraudulent,” or “false”; “lambaste,” an “overused” colloquialism for “criticize” or “denounce”; “hassle”; “highbrow”; and “strapped,” as in “cash-strapped.”

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What’s considered “colloquial” can depend on the audience or the message. Academics tend to write more formally in papers, even as they might lighten up the same subject for a textbook or class handout.

For a long time, something that was “colloquial” was a bad thing, considered a sign of slipshod usage (and less education). Not so much nowadays, as we communicate more and more informally through texts, tweets, and the like. As Bryan A. Garner says in Garner’s Modern English Usage: “Perhaps, after a period of degenerate connotations, colloquial will become a term of praise.”

As we’ve discussed, an “idiom” is an expression that does not exactly mean the words it contains. “I could care less” literally means “I care a little, and I could reduce how much I care,” but it is used idiomatically to mean “I could not care less.” Entire dictionaries have been written about “idioms,” some of which might evoke strange images in the mind for someone who doesn’t understand it. Imagine telling someone who is not familiar with idiom that “I bit off more than I can chew,” or asking that person, “cat got your tongue?” But “idioms” are also perfectly acceptable informal expressions, if not literal ones, like “he fit that description to a T,” “he’s a real couch potato,” or “she finally put two and two together.” The Times stylebook mentions other idiomatic uses, like “gender gap,” “Sixth Avenue” in New York (instead of the formal “Avenue of the Americas”), and “Jersey Shore.” An “idiom” is a “colloquialism” of expression. whether you use them should depend on whether you think your audience will understand them.


“Slang” takes the language down a notch, and is more fleeting. Most “slang” words don’t last very long and fall out of favor even if they make it into dictionaries. (When was the last time you said “23 skidoo” or “Gee, that movie was keen”?) Slang, too, has generated many dictionaries. Garner’s notes that much of “slang” originates in “people with low status or with a low level of responsibility” and is “more or less taboo in the discourse of those with high status or a high degree of responsibility.” “Slang” takes the place of other words and is, as Garner’s, says, “linguistically rebellious,” perhaps repurposing a perfectly fine word to mean something else, like our “bizarro” words “dope,” “hot,” and “cool.”

Both the AP and Times stylebooks advise against using “slang” except for effect, because it is too informal and possibly beyond the audience’s comprehension. It was, after all, intended for the “in crowd” before it escaped into wider usage.

Most vulgar, profane, and obscene words and expressions are “slang” as well, so the same standards should apply, with journalists avoiding them unless needed–perhaps, for example, when spoken by a presidential candidate.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.