Colloquial and Pretentious Diction

Colloquialisms are expressions appropriate to informal, conversational occasions. In writing they may sound out of place:

We have a swell professor of mathematics. BETTER: nice, interesting, pleasant

Colloquial words are a problem when they fit awkwardly with their contexts or when they are vague. And frequently colloquialisms are vague. (What, for example, does swell mean in the sentence above?) In speech we compensate for verbal vagueness by gestures, tone of voice, the common ground of knowledge and experience we share with our friends. None of these aids to communication is available to the writer.

On the other hand, some colloquialisms are remarkably expressive, and these are more acceptable now than they were a generation ago, when writers were more scrupulous about levels of usage. Today, we feel freer to mix formal words and colloquial ones. The result, if controlled by word sense and taste, is a clear gain in precision and variety (italics added in both cases):

Joan's voices and visions have played tricks with her reputation.

George Bernard Shaw

There's another wrinkle to this. Elizabeth )aneway

An extreme form of colloquialism is slang. We all use slang, and we all recognize it. But we find it very difficult to define. Sometimes slang is an ordinary word given a special meaning: heavy in the sense of serious, or cool in the sense of unperturbed or a little better than all right. Other slang terms occur only as slang—nerd, for instance.

Slang tends to be short-lived: that of one generation sounds silly to the next. (There are exceptions; some slang terms are notably okay.) Slang tends also to be richly suggestive in meaning, conveying a wide range of attitudes and responses and values in a brief expression (square, hep). But the richness is likely to hide an imprecision: often we feel that a slang term says exactly what we want to say, but we find it very difficult to explain what that something is.

Even more than colloquialisms, slang has an air of informality. That tone can be useful, helping to create a good writer-reader relationship or a likable persona. Used intelligently, an occasional bit of slang will not only say exactly the right thing but also please us by its novelty (italics added):

The authors had a reputation for being jealous of each other's fame and losing no opportunity of putting the boot in [kicking a fallen

Opponent]________Frank Muir don't mean to suggest that Segal is as gaga as this book [Love that a part of him is. Pauline


Pretentiousness is using big words to no purpose (except perhaps to show off). It results in long-winded, wooden sentences filled with deadwood. Shorter, simpler words mean shorter, clearer sentences:

Upon receiving an answer in the affirmative, he proceeded to the bulletin board.

BETTER: Told yes, he went to the bulletin board.

Television shows which demonstrate participation in physical exercise will improve your muscle tone. BETTER: Television exercise shows improve your muscle tone.

Remember, though, that not all unusual or learned terms are a flaw, even when they could be replaced by simpler ones. Skillful writers employ uncommon words to draw attention or to imply a subtlety. Here, for instance, a learned word wittily conceals a vulgar insult:

Among those who distrust the [literary] critic as an intrusive middleman, edging his vast steatopygous bulk between author and audience, it is not uncommon to wish him away, out of the direct line of Vision. Carlos Baker

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  • Miley Fleming
    When slang is an ordinary word?
    8 years ago

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