colloquialization (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Geoffrey Leech and Nicholas Smith, "Change and Constancy in Linguistic Change: How Grammatical Usage in Written English Evolved in the Period 1931-1991." Corpus Linguistics: Refinements and Reassessments, ed. by A. Renouf and A. Kehoe (2009). (Getty Images)


Colloquialization is the process of incorporating informal, speech-like features into written English. Related to conversationalization and informalization.

The term colloquialization was introduced by Christian Mair in 1997 to describe the linguistic expression of a "general societal trend, namely an informalisation of manners and codes of conduct" ("Parallel Corpora" in Corpus-Based Studies in English).

Over the past century, the influence of colloquialization has been strongest in fiction and in popular forms of written news reportage. At the same time, note Biber and Gray, "colloquialization has had little influence on the discourse style of academic prose" (Grammatical Complexity in Academic English, 2016).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Written English . . . has been dethroned. The spoken word now rules, in all its informality and occasional vulgarity. The effects are felt in politics, public taste and even in our writing.

    "The written language predominated because for generations, there was no other way to communicate over distance than by letters, newspapers, periodicals or books; even telegrams were written. With the invention of the telephone in 1876, spoken English started its long, slow march toward dominance, a march that has accelerated in the last few years. . . .

    "Full circle: the daily dominance of spoken English is evident even when it's written, in the conversational informality of email."
    (Jack Rosenthal, "So Here's What's Happening to Language." The New York Times, November 14, 2001)

  • Colloquial Style Markers
    "One trend which has massively impacted on the shape of written English in the course of the past century is what we will refer to as 'colloquialization,' i.e. a tendency for written norms to become more informal and move closer to speech. The present study will provide ample statistical documentation of this trend based on corpora, for example by showing that there have been increases of informal contracted negatives of the type isn't, doesn't or hasn't at the expense of the formal two-word alternatives is not, does not or has not . . .. On the discourse level, paragraphs in popular written genres have become shorter, and newspaper reports now come with more passages of direct quotation—whether real or fictitious—than they used to."
    (Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith, Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study. Cambridge University Press, 2012)

  • The Ongoing Process of Colloquialization
    "[C]olloquialization occurs as a long-term drift over the course of the history of English. . . . However, it does not hold for all written registers alike. For example, popular kinds of writing produced for a general readership (essays, diaries, fiction, and letters) actually become more literate in the 18th century before reversing the direction of this change in the 19th and 20th centuries, when they become considerably more oral. Informational, expository registers (especially legal and academic prose), by contrast, follow a consistent course toward ever more literate styles, in keeping with their specialized readership . . ..

    "As for the 20th century, some studies on the the Brown family of corpora . . . show that the process of colloquialization of non-expository genres accelerated in the second half of the century, with changes such as increased use of contractions, progressives, and get-passives, and the decline in use of no-negation in favor of not-negation, of wh-relative clauses in favor of that and zero counterparts, and of pied-piping in favor of preposition stranding . . .."
    (Michael Farrelly and Elena Stone, "Democratization." The Oxford Handbook of the History of English, ed. by Terttu Nevalainen and Elizabeth Closs Traugott. Oxford University Press, 2012)

  • Rise of the Semi-Modal be going to
    "[B]e going to was more than twice as frequent in the American corpus as in the Australian or British corpora, suggesting that 'Americanization' may be a factor in its growing popularity. That 'colloquialization' may be another relevant factor is suggested by the finding that be going to is greatly preferred in speech over writing (by a ratio of 9.9:1), further confirmation for the applicability of this suggestion to AmE and BrE being provided by Leech's (2003) finding that between 1961 and 1991/2 be going to enjoyed a strong increase in popularity in American writing (51.6%) and in British writing (18.5%)."
    (Peter Collins, "The English Modals and Semi-Modals: Regional and Stylistic Variation." The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation: Corpus Evidence on English Past and Present, ed. by Terttu Nevalainen. John Benjamins, 2008)

  • Rise of Progressive Verbs
    "The main factors behind the increase [in the use of progressives in written English] seem to be the sociostylistic factors of colloquialization and democratization, and the systematic processes of subjectification and generalization . . ..

    "[T]he progressive is more frequent in speech-like genres and the increase in the progressive in Time magazine coincides with increasing colloquialization. Thus, the results support Leech et al.'s (2009) hypothesis that colloquialization affects the growth of the progressive in writing."
    (Magnus Levin, "The Progressive Verb in Modern American English." The Verb Phrase in English: Investigating Recent Language Change with Corpora, ed. by Bas Aarts, Joanne Close, Geoffrey Leech, and Sean Wallis. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

  • Colloquialization in Australian English (AusE) and New Zealand English (NZE)
    "The research presented in . . . this volume adds to the body of evidence on the trend towards greater colloquialization of English. . . . AusE and NZE are not only participating in it but at the leading edge of importing spoken features of English into writing. Where they diverge, AusE is generally more advanced than NZE in the colloquialization of standard usage, since NZE writers maintain greater separation of the spoken and written registers."
    (Pam Peters, "Epilogue." Comparative Studies in Australian and New Zealand English: Grammar and Beyond, ed. by Pam Peters, Peter Collins, and Adam Smith. John Benjamins, 2009)
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    Nordquist, Richard. "colloquialization (language)." ThoughtCo, Nov. 22, 2016, Nordquist, Richard. (2016, November 22). colloquialization (language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "colloquialization (language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2018).