The Colloquial Style

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Colloquial prose style
J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is narrated in a colloquial style. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The term colloquial refers to a style of writing that conveys the effect of informal spoken language as distinct from formal or literary English. Noun: colloquialism. Also called a conversational style.

A colloquial style is commonly used, for example, in dialogueinformal emails, and text messages.

Examples and Observations

  • "Many great writers have been extraordinarily awkward in daily exchange, but the greatest give the impression that their style was nursed by the closest attention to colloquial speech.”
    (Thornton Wilder, interview in Writers at Work: First Series, ed. by Malcolm Cowley, 1958)
  • "I find a conversational tone in writing—as in telephoning—carries further than shouting."
    (James Gibbons Huneker, letter to Emma Eames, 1913)

Mark Twain's Colloquial Style

  • "Out of his knowledge of the actual speech of America Mark Twain forged a classic prose. . . . [Twain] is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth."(Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, 1950)
  • "We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next." (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884)

    George Orwell's Colloquial Style

    •  "There is not much to do with [George] Orwell's novels except read them. Nor is there much to be said about his style. It was colloquial in diction and sinewy in construction; it aimed at clarity and unobtrusiveness and achieved both." (Richard H. Rovere, Introduction to The Orwell Reader, 1961)
    • "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, opening sentence of the novel 1984, 1949)

    Joseph Epstein on the Conversational Style in Essays

    "While there is no firmly set, single style for the essayist, styles varying with each particular essayist, the best general description of essayistic style was written in 1827 by William Hazlitt in his essay 'Familiar Style.' 'To write a genuine familiar or truly English style,' Hazlitt wrote, 'is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes.' The style of the essayist is that of an extremely intelligent, highly commonsensical person talking, without stammer and with impressive coherence, to himself or herself and to anyone else who cares to eavesdrop. This self-reflexivity, this notion of talking to oneself, has always seemed to me to mark the essay off from the lecture. The lecturer is always teaching; so, too, frequently is the critic. If the essayist does so, it is usually only indirectly."
    (Joseph Epstein, Introduction. The Best American Essays 1993.

    Ticknor & Fields, 1993)

    The Downside of Breeziness

    • "Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any other stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away." (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)
    •  "Writing in a conversational style does not mean 'write like you talk.' To do that would be bad writing—wordy, repetitive, disorganized. A conversational style is a default style, a drafting style, or point of departure that can serve as a consistent foundation for your writing. It is the style of a painter doing sketches for a painting, not the painting itself." (Robert Saba, Composing to Communicate. Cengage, 2017)

      Colloquial Like

      "Here’s my latest reminder on the use and misuse of 'like.'

      "Using 'like' as a conjunction, to introduce a full clause, is common in casual conversation. But this colloquial construction grates on the ear of many sophisticated readers, and we should generally avoid it.

      "And yet . . . it’s never hard to find new examples:

      At 92, Mr. Harman looks and sounds like he is 72, and he is determined to keep it that way.

      Such an easy fix here, and shorter, too: 'At 92, Mr. Harman looks and sounds 72.'"
      (Philip B. Corbett, "The Trouble With ‘Like.’" The New York Times, Aug. 31, 2010)

      Pronunciation: co-LOW-kwee-ul

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "The Colloquial Style." ThoughtCo, Jan. 21, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, January 21). The Colloquial Style. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Colloquial Style." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 27, 2018).