Colloquialisms: What Are Colloquialisms? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 14, 2023

If you want to know what colloquialisms are and how to use them in your writing, you've come to the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know.

In short:

  • Colloquialisms are a type of informal speech used and understood by specific subgroups and used in casual conversation.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Colloquialisms?

'Colloquialism' is a noun to refer to colloquial language. This means it's part of informal language, which is pretty much the opposite of formal language types like academic writing.

  • It's primarily used in conversation, except when used as a literary device or in informal settings like social media or texting with your friends and family.

Many colloquial words and phrases already exist, while others are created from non-colloquial words that have taken on a second meaning due to continued use. Take the word 'sweet,' for example. Its primary meaning is to identify something that tastes like sugar, but nowadays, you can use it colloquially to mean something is good or that you're happy about it.

Here are some examples of common colloquialisms:

  • memaw (grandmother)
  • Boo or bae (significant other)
  • bite the bullet (do something unpleasant)
  • wicked (very)
  • fixing to (preparing to)
  • soda (soft drink)
  • spill the beans (reveal information)
  • catch ya (see you)
  • bomb (to do poorly)
  • take a rain check (reschedule)

Notice how some colloquialisms are individual words, and some are phrases.

  • The thing about colloquialisms in English is that while some are universal, others can differ from country to country, even if English is the primary spoken language in all these countries.

Look at the following examples of colloquialisms specific to different English-speaking countries:


flat out (very busy)
lolly (candy)
barbie (barbecue)

United Kingdom

flat (apartment)
baccie (tobacco)
brolly (umbrella)


canuck (Canadian)
clicks (kilometers)
keener (eager to please)

United States

wheels (vehicle)
amped (excited)
salty (bitter)

Colloquialisms can ever differ within different parts of the country. Mention 'pogonip' in Nevada, and they'll know you're referring to thick fog but say the word in Minnesota, and chances are they won't know what you're talking about.

When to Use Colloquialisms

The first bit of advice I want to give you when it comes to colloquialisms is not to overuse or misuse them. They can add color to your writing and even a little humor if employed correctly. Still, equally, if you're not careful, they can easily confuse your reader or make your text appear inappropriate.

Colloquial language is always appropriate if you're chatting with some friends or family members over text or on social media. You might even be able to use it in other contexts, like blog writing. You might have noticed I used the word 'chatting' in the first sentence of this paragraph. It came across okay, didn't it? That's because I was sure you would know what this word means.

So before using colloquial language, think about the kind of people who will read your writing. What generation are they from? Which country and region? Are you sure they'll be familiar with the words you're using? If so, go for it.

Colloquialisms are also great as a literary device:

  • In narration, to recreate dialogue between two characters.
  • To match the setting if your story is set in a specific period or place.
  • To fit the character's background, if you're writing a fictional book

Colloquialisms vs Slang

Slang is another type of informal language, but it isn't exactly the same as colloquialisms. The difference lies mainly in the fact that slang is usually a trend. Most slang words currently being used weren't used just a few years ago, and they will no longer be used in another few years.

Here are some examples of slang you rarely hear anymore or would be considered "uncool" or "dad joke":

  • groovy
  • bummer
  • Can you dig it?
  • hang loose
  • catch ya on the flip side

Colloquial language, on the other hand, is considered standard English, so it's here to stay. Having said that, there are definitely some exceptions to this, like the slang words 'fam' (close friend) and 'grub' (food) which have been used for many years.

Slang is also quite specific to a particular demographic, determined by age, ethnicity, culture, etc. For example, you're more likely to hear slang from a teenager or someone in their twenties than someone in their forties. And it isn't bound by the usual grammar and syntax conventions. Slang can be regional, cultural, or subcultural.

Here are some examples of common slang:

  • extra (when something is over-the-top, in a good or bad way)
  • it hits different (something that hits different is better than the rest)
  • low-key (to downplay something)
  • thirsty (trying to get attention)
  • flex (show off)

Are Idioms Colloquial?

An idiom is an expression that uses words in a different way than their original meaning. This means you can't just look at the words to understand what the sentence means.

A popular idiom, for example, is 'to stab someone in the back.' When we talk about stabbing someone in the back, it doesn't mean we're literally going to do it; it means 'to betray.' So you might say your colleague stabbed you in the back by telling your boss they did all the work and didn't credit you.

So are idioms colloquial, or can you use them in formal contexts? The answer is that yes, they can be both. So you can use them in your casual and formal writing.

Some idioms, however, come across as more conversational than formal, such as:

The exam was a total piece of cake.

Hang in there; I know times are tough but things will get better.

You're barking up the wrong tree; I'm not responsible for this.

Conversely, some idioms come across as more formal, like the following:

You look pensive; penny for your thoughts?

Well done for learning this new skill! You can add another string to your bow.

You've said many times that you would fix the roof but so far you haven't done it. Don't you know that actions speak louder than words?

There's no official way of knowing which idioms are formal and which are colloquial; it's just something you'll know intuitively over time as you use them more and more and expose yourself to high-quality writing and read grammar blogs like these.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on colloquial language. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Colloquial language is used in informal situations, unlike formal and academic writing.
  • You can use it with friends and family in conversation, texting, social media, or email.
  • You can also use it in your formal writing as a literary device.
  • Colloquialisms differ from slang, which is trendy and mostly doesn't stick around.
  • Some idioms are considered colloquial, while others are considered formal. Others can fit into any category.
  • Don't overuse colloquialisms in your writing. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our Grammar Book. It's an online database of grammar articles just like this one. Check it out!

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.