Feb 13, 2013

Colloquialisms -- Yes or No?

by Michelle Douglas

Earlier in the month I received one of the best reviews I’ve ever had (if you want, you can read the entire review here). It’s not reviews I want to talk about today, though, but an author’s voice, which this particular review has started me pondering. In her second last paragraph the reviewer says:

Michelle Douglas has a wonderful earthy style, writing in Australian English and drawing from her homeland the rhythms, the warmth and the space between what is realistic and what is possible. (If you're not used to the differences between American and Australian English, it may be a bit of a curve.)

Obviously I write in Australian English, because I’m Australian. :-) And when I first started writing I clung tightly to my Australian colloquialisms and speech patterns.


I like the way Australians speak. I like the unique and, often, colourful expressions my fellow countrymen utter. Very often this is the way I hear my characters (particularly my heroes) speaking inside my head.

And in homage to Aussie slang, here is a fine sampling:
* Her words hit him for a six.
* She’d grabbed the rough end of the stick there.
* She’s such a sticky beak.
* She didn’t give a flying fig.
* He’s a sandwich short of a picnic.
* Those are as scarce as hens teeth.
* She was as happy as Larry.
* She stared at him like a stunned mullet.
* He couldn’t take a trick.
* He was determined to be first cab off the rank.

I worry that language is becoming intolerably generic. Personally I like stumbling across a phrase I’ve never heard before and trying to work out what it means from the context it’s been used in, and I know I’m not alone in that.


I’m starting to soften my stance.


I hate the idea of excluding anyone from my stories, of not including them in any in-jokes or making it difficult for them to understand the dynamics between my characters. When I wrote my Masters thesis—yes, I used formal language—but I deliberately shunned language that would make it difficult for a layperson to understand. By holding so tightly to my Australian colloquialisms, am I not doing precisely this—making it difficult for a person unfamiliar with the Australian vernacular to take part in my stories?

It’s occurred to me, however, that this isn’t an either-or situation. I can choose to tone down the Australian vernacular in my stories, but it doesn’t mean I can’t use lively and energetic expressions that will just as easily get my point across without baffling anyone (I hope).

Thoughts, anyone? Or perhaps you have a favourite colloquial expression of your own you’d like to share—beware, though, I may use it in my very next story. ;-)


  1. I love to use "off-piste," but only in conversation. I agree that using colloquialisms might be off-putting to some readers, but, at the same time, colloquialisms can create a feeling of "in-group," because readers may feel as if they're being invited to join in -- that they're being included in a group that uses and knows those expressions. BTW, who's Larry? :)

  2. Marcie, that's a good point about readers feeling included in an "in-group." I shall have to ponder that some more.

    Off-piste! I know what it means, but I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. Hence, I never use it in conversation. :-) [There's another blog idea -- words we mispronounce! I had a friend who used to pronounce misled as missled (to rhyme with whistled). Now whenever I see that word I want to mispronounce it.]

    Ah, who was Larry? We ask the big questions here at the LoveCats. :-) There are 2 schools of thought. 1. That Larry is short for larrikan. 2. Or that it was Larry Foley, the Australian boxer who never lost a fight and won quite a bit of money (and, therefore, one can assume, was pretty darn happy?)

  3. Colloquialisms ~ Yes

    They are part and parcel of reading a book about another country just as much as the flora and fauna are. I want to puzzle out what things mean and look them up if I can't. It broadens my mind. I want to feel the country or the era in the book. For me it adds to the story.

  4. Ooh, thanks, Kaelee! I'd started to think that maybe I was giving a reader the opposite experience and merely befuddling them rather than adding colour and the feel of the country. So pleased you enjoy colloquialisms too!

  5. Oh, Michelle, I want to argue that you don't ever drop the Aussie-isms. In the past it may have been segregating but in this day and age, you just Google the phrase and find out what it means.

    I think it's awful that we make language so similar and aim for average. We need to fly with words, make them special, have them resonate within us.

    We accept US-isms as every day language, I think we need to fight to keep our own vernacular, especially in Aussie stories.

    Thanks for letting me jump on my soapbox :)

    Cath xo

  6. Please don't tone down your Australian-isms - at the very least to keep them alive here. They help us to maintain connected to our roots, and they help us to retain our sense of belonging and uniqueness.

    I agree about language becoming "intolerably generic". Well put.

  7. Michelle, I love reading books that have a definite flavor and reflect the country in which they are set- like accents, we all have things that make us unique to our home town/area of birth. And I most definitely think we should use them in our books if possible. I never have a problem reading stories with a peppering of colloquialisms (especially ones that make me smile), I guess the problem comes if they are overused, and that can possibly alienate the reader.

    Keep them in if you can!

  8. Hi Cath, and no problems -- soapbox away. :-) You make a persuasive argument!

    We do need to fly with words (well put!) and, truly, there should be a lot of space for different idioms and -isms. You make a good point that understanding a phrase is only a google search away.

  9. Hi, Toni! Ah, another vote for keeping the colloquialisms. Language can really make us feel rooted to our culture, can't it? While it might be possible for me to tone down my Aussie-sims, I'm not sure I could completely strip my writing of it. TBH, I'm not sure I'd want to either. I expect it would be "me" any more.

  10. Louisa, I love how you liken colloquialisms to accents -- which, of course, is exactly what they are. I think you're right and that a peppering is enough. Too much of anything can become a tad overpowering. :-) A light hand might be the key.

  11. I do enjoy colloquialisms and I enjoy hearing/reading them from other areas too! Actually, I heard an American paleontologist on the radio this morning talking about a small measurement of time and he used a really cute expression - as small as a gnat's eyebrow.

    Every now and then I'll use an expression from when I was growing up in NZ and someone will look sideways at me! Wish I could think of an example to give but naturally my mind is a totally unhelpful blank right now!

  12. Great post! IMHO, that's what makes a good writer's voice even better - those turns of phrases that I sometimes haven't heard before but just feel so right.
    It's funny when an editor picks up on something that is "Australian" and asks me to consider changing it. Sometimes I do, but oftentimes I don't when the character is Australian.
    I didn't realize until this latest book that Americans don't say, "Bang on." They don't know what a gassbag is. LOL
    The world is getting smaller, but there's still lots of room for individuality, especially in books.
    Congrats on the great review!

  13. If I'm reading a book set in a definite place, I want to feel the location. Just a taste though, I don't need the whole meal. (I haven't heard that one in a long time.)

  14. I think yes, but gently. And it should be clear from the context what is meant so i don't feel (particularly) stupid!

  15. As small as a gnat's eyebrow -- love it, Sharon! Those kinds of phrases add so much colour in such a short space. One of the things I love about the TV series New Tricks is hearing Jerry's cockney slang. :-)

  16. You're right, Robbie! When a writer uses a previously unheard of (for me) phrase and it rings true, it feels like such a discovery and revelation. I think that's one of the reasons poetry can touch a chord within us too.

    "Bang on" and "Gasbag" are two of my favourites ;-) but I didn't know Americans were unfamiliar with the terms. *Shakes head sadly* My books must sometimes be indecipherable to an American audience.

  17. Oh, Mary -- just a taste not the whole meal! I haven't heard that one in an age. Thanks for the smile! :-)

  18. Bec, I think gently and judiciously are the keys to getting this right. Too much can be off-putting, I think. A little can go a long way to adding flavour.

    And, yes, I hear you on putting the phrase in a context to make it easily understood. The last thing I expect any writer wants to do is make their reader feel stupid!

  19. Michelle,

    I know what you mean about making your stories accessible. It's hard reading a book so full of jargon or colloquialisms that you don't know what's going on. On the other hand, I've found it's by reading new phrases and ideas that I expand my knowledge. I love finding new snippets in books set in other places or written by someone on the other side of the world. I'd hate not to be able to include some of that. I had fun recently writing a British hero as I knew he would understand and use 'hit for six', which to me is such a descriptive idea. One of the nice things about reading romances from all around the world is the variety of voices, styles and colloquialisms!

  20. Hi Michelle, I'm with you in thinking that a little goes a long way. As an ex-high school English Teacher I have quite a passion for colloquialism and regional differences in language. I'd love romances that have all sorts of different flavours from the dialogue to the setting and even little things like what characters do for their holidays.

  21. Annie, you're right -- accessibility is the key. Like you I love the enormous variety of voice and style (and colloquialisms!) that abounds in the romance genre. For me, it makes the genre so alive and diverse. And, like you, characterising a hero and/or heroine through their dialogue and the kinds of phrases and vernacular they use is a joy.

  22. Barb, from the discussion so far, I think that "a little goes a long way" is my take away. Colloquialism is a spice rather than a main ingredient, but it obviously makes a big difference in terms of enriching the essence of a story. I'm starting to feel very fortunate that I write in such an embracing and accepting genre. :-)

  23. Michelle. As a reader I love the colloquialisms. I feel they give me an inside look at the character and their background. But I have to state that some of your Aussie slang are things I grew up with and I'm definitely from the central USA. Scarce as hens teeth and sandwich short of a picnic are a couple. I have a lot I grew up with that I thought were country slang - finer than a frogs hair, not the sharpest tack (or pencil) in the box are a couple. But I'm with everyone, keep them but use them judiciously. I don't want to have to google every few lines :)

  24. Michelle, this conversation has been fascinating! I suppose I tend to go lightly on them, but maybe I'll consider sprinkling a few in occasionally. Thanks for the food for thought!

  25. Hi Rita, I'm glad I have another vote for colloquialisms. I think a lot of sayings do translate across continents and/or have similar counterparts. I had to wonder if "rough end of the stick" was uniquely Australian as there is also "short end of the stick" and "worst end of the stick too." And there are lots of an "x short of" expressions too -- a few eggs short of the full dozen etc.

    Love finer than a frog's hair (not come across that one before)!

  26. Hiya, Rach! It has been a fun discussion, hasn't it? :-)