The short answer is it depends. Let’s start by looking at what colloquial language is. It can be defined as ‘casual and conversational language, usually specific to a region.’ The word colloquial comes from the Latin word colloquium, meaning ‘speaking together’ or ‘conversation’.
English is spoken in the USA, UK, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, among other countries. However, the same English word spoken in different countries can have a completely different meaning.
For instance, ‘thongs’ to most English speakers are underwear. Thongs to Australians are flip-flops. These colloquialisms can cause confusion when used outside of the region. Americans wearing thongs to the beach are quite different to Australians donning their thongs when heading down to Bondi Beach!
South Africans speak of ‘stopping at the red robot’ – a red traffic light to anyone else. These are examples of the same word having a different meaning in a different English-speaking region – not just a different word to describe something.
Here are a few more examples of colloquialisms, with the first being US and the latter being UK.
garbage or trash/rubbish – trashcan/rubbish bin
trunk/boot (referring to a car)
hood/bonnet (referring to a car)
gas station/petrol station
What is slang?
Slang is language that is specific to a group of people – such as teenagers. Slang is fresh and current; what was considered slang when you were a teenager is most likely very different to what today’s teens use.
Slang is used within a certain demographic, which could be defined by age, culture, race, or social stature. Colloquialisms, on the other hand, are only defined by region. For example:
In the USA, you may ‘use the elevator of your apartment building when taking out the trash’. While in the UK, you would ‘use the lift of your flats when taking out the rubbish’.
What is jargon?
Another group-specific language term is ‘jargon’. Jargon differs from both slang and colloquial language in that jargon terms are only familiar within a certain industry or occupation.
Think of tech jargon or terms used in law or the medical profession. If you’re not in the industry, you’re not likely to know many of the phrases used.
So, when is it okay to use colloquialisms, slang, or jargon?
Firstly, define who your readership is.
- For whom am I writing?
- Are my readers only from a specific region?
- Is this formal writing or creative writing?
If you’re writing an article, blog or academic writing for a specific industry, then it would be perfectly acceptable to assume that your readers would know the jargon used.
Similarly, if your character in a novel has a profession that would use jargon (such as a doctor), then the character using such language would make them authentic and believable.
In the same way, if your character is a teenager from the UK, you’d expect them to say ‘sorted’or ‘wicked’ instead of ‘I understand’ or ‘That’s good’. Of course, you need to take the generation into account. In what period is your story set? A teenager from the 1970s would use very different slang than one today.
If you know your audience is from a specific region or country, then you could safely use colloquial language in your article. However, if your audience is broad, then use language that everyone would understand. South Africans would still know what a ‘traffic light’ is, however, an American may not know that a ‘braai’ is a barbeque.
Slang and colloquialisms should not be used in any formal writing. However, jargon can be and is often used in formal writing.
It’s a good idea to ask your editor for a style guide. This would let you know if you should use US or UK spelling and grammar, and based on that, you could adapt your colloquial terms accordingly.