A colloquialism is a literary device that utilizes informal words or phrases, typically words or phrases that are only used under certain conditions such as: specific regions, eras, or demographics of speaker.
In writing, the intentional use of colloquialisms can ground your writing in realism by giving a genuine and convincing voice to your narrative and characters.
“Colloquialism” comes from the Latin “colloquium” which simply means “conversation.”
Colloquialisms are one of the elements that give fictional voices that feeling of realistic conversations.
A writer might use colloquialism to express the location, era, and society of the story. It can also be used to give believability and context to a character within that setting.
Sometimes writers use colloquialism unintentionally, just by virtue of the way they were raised, where they’re from, and their education level affecting their writing style.
For example, one of my writing partners is from Texas–I started marking her writing with “cowboy verbiage” because it was so strongly Texan. She didn’t even realize some of the words and phrases were colloquial.
Let’s look at some examples of colloquialisms.
Examples of Colloquialisms
Some colloquialisms are just common abbreviations of phrases, like these:
- Wanna (want to)
- Gonna (going to)
- Boutta (about to)
- Y’all (you all)
- Ain’t (am not/are not)
Some are different phrases entirely:
- Score (getting something you want)
- Deadset (determined)
- Ruckus (a disturbance, usually funny)
- Buzz off (“go away” in the US)
- Piss off (“go away” in the UK)
- Flake (cancelling plans last minute)
Here are a few examples of colloquialisms in literature, from the short story Cane Sprouts in the collection Little Birds. In this story, Natasha returns to her southern home after living in New York for several years.
“Don’t catch me no more bullheads,” Granny calls after us. “Sick to tired of them damn fish.”
In this example, you can see the socioeconomic and educational state of the character in the double negative of “don’t catch me no more.” The way Granny change the phrase “sick and tired” by saying “sick to tired” is because her first language is French. These colloquialisms characterize her.
“Grandpa,” I try again. “It’s Nat.”
“Yeah, we got gnats ‘cause everybody leavin’ the damn door open.” He sniffs and wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
“No, it’s Natasha,” I say.
He peeks an eye open. “My Natasha?” He grins and strains to sit up. “Come here, mais cher!” He pulls me into a hug, roughly patting my back. “How you been?” He holds me at arm’s length. “You eat?”
In this excerpt, we characterize Grandpa the same way we characterized Granny. His first language is French, he isn’t extensively educated, and he’s clearly from southern United States.
Throughout the story, Natasha goes from speaking with syntax typical of someone from a northern state and of higher education, to using phrasing and verbiage more similar to the other characters who never left the south.
“You know,” I say. “The Coopers always have a litter of kittens running around. I could probably snatch one for you.”
Natasha using the word “snatch” to mean “catch” is an example of her slipping back into homegrown colloquialisms.
The transition shows how she’s changed over the years, but once she’s back home, she slips in with everyone else by using southern-specific terms (“Where’s the folks?”) and dropping words from sentences (“Cam, why they burn the cane?”). That characterizes her, but also gives context for how she’s changed, how long she’s been gone, and how returning home has affected her.
How to Use Colloquialisms in Writing
Now that we know what colloquialisms are, have an idea of how they’re used, and have seen a few examples of them, let’s talk about some tips for using them in your own writing.
- Pay attention to how your favorite writers use colloquialisms in their stories. What does it show about the setting? What do readers learn about the characters without even realizing they’re learning it?
- Get to know your characters and consider how they’d speak and the colloquialisms they might use. Employ it to let your readers get closer to your characters.
- Use it intentionally. Just like any literary device, know what you’re doing, why, and how it affects the reader experience.
- Don’t overdo it! Like anything else, aim for a balance. If you overuse colloquialisms, your writing might sound unintentionally campy or silly, and that will make your world less believable.
Colloquialisms are a fun element to incorporate into your story to give it color, believability, and a credible setting.
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