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On Colloquial Language
by Paul

Colloquialisms are words or expressions used in everyday common speech or in informal writing.  Colloquial language is typically acceptable in casual, ordinary, and familiar communication as when you speak or write to a friend, colleague, or family member.  On the other hand, colloquial language should be minimized in formal communication such as when you write a report for work, or a paragraph or an essay for school.

Colloquial language is informal language which can vary from one geographical area to another.  Furthermore, colloquial words and expressions are not rude, but simply reflect the closeness and knowledge between the speaker or the writer and the audience.  It is also important to differentiate between colloquial English and slang.  Slang, also informal language, is made up of words and expressions used within small social groups.  For example, teenagers develop their own slang words and expressions to use among themselves.

If you use the occasional colloquialism in some of your formal writing, it is good practice to differentiate the appearance of the colloquialism’s text from the rest.  For example, the colloquial word or phrase can be enclosed within quotation marks, or it can be typed in a special letter style or font.  This is to draw the attention of the reader to the meaning of your colloquialism, and also to indicate to the reader that you are aware that the colloquialism is an exception to the intended formal writing.

The following are examples of colloquial expressions with their formal English alternative:


Colloquial Expression


Formal English Alternative

as alike as two peas in a pod

exactly the same, or identical

in hot water

in trouble

pulling my leg

making a joke, or joking

paper pusher

works all day with paper forms and reports

have a heart

be kind, understand, or forgive

no way

can not be true, or not possible

pack it in

give up

give me a break

don’t bother me

full of beans


cheesed off




Achilles’ heel

a major weakness


a strong man, or strong boy

couch potato

watching too much television


The following sentences contain colloquialisms.  Complete each explanation by referring to the above examples:  (answers given below).


  1. Mary is going to get in hot water for not locking the front door.  She is worried that she’ll get__________.
  2. Mark was a little cheesed off  when he didn’t get the raise he expected at work.  Mark was a little__________.
  3. After failing his driving test for the third time, John decided to “pack it in.”  He decided to __________his plans of ever driving.
  4. My English teacher was pulling my leg when she said that I didn’t pass the final exam.  My English teacher was only __________.
  5. Can you “give me a break” on my promise to pay you $2000?  Could you __________ about my promise?
  6. There is no way that we can reach Vancouver, British Columbia, by this evening!  It is __________ to reach Vancouver by this evening!
  7. Was the teacher kidding when she assigned twenty pages for homework?  Was the teacher __________ when she assigned all that work?
  8. Peter and his brother are “as alike as two peas in a pod.”  Peter and his brother are __________.
  9. After a difficult day at work, Robyn is still full of beans.  Robyn is still __________ after a difficult day at work.
  10. Being a “couch potato” over the two summer months caused me to gain ten kilograms.  __________ caused me to gain weight.
  11.  I always score over 95% in English and science courses, but math is my Achilles’ heel.  Math is__________ of mine.
  12.  Catherine asked the police officer to “have a heart” as he handed her the traffic ticket for speeding.  Mary was hoping that the police officer would __________ her for speeding.
  13. He should spend more time studying and less time on looking macho.  He should worry less about looking__________, while worrying more about school.
  14. Doreen retired to Victoria, British Columbia, after 35 boring years as a paper pusher at a large factory office.  Doreen spent 35 years __________.



Answers: 1. in trouble;  2. upset;  3. give up;  4. joking;  5. stop bothering me;  6. not possible;  7. joking;  8. exactly the same;  9. energetic;  10. Watching too much television;  11. a major weakness;  12. forgive;  13. strong;  14. working every day with paper forms and reports.

Understanding and using English colloquialisms will certainly help to develop one’s English language skills and communication skills.  The degree to which you use colloquial language depends on your level of formality and association with your audience.  Colloquialisms may add “humour” and “colour” to your language, yet colloquial language should be minimized in formal language as when writing paragraphs, essays, or reports for school or for work.


For online colloquial practice and quizzes, check these links:

Colloquial Pairs

Expressing Emotion

Fruit and Vegetable

Esl Quizzes (try the “Colloquial Expressions Referring to Time” quiz)


Check the following for reference and further detail:

Glossary of Colloquialisms

Colloquialism (Wikipedia)



Canadian Student Writer’s Guide, by Chelsea Donaldson



(May 31, 2009)

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