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Colloquialisms refer to expressions that are colloquial or informal, which are not incorrect, but are dispreferred, e.g., for academic and/or formal writing. Some of the terms below are more informal, general, or vague, and are less commonly used in academic writing; the more formal alternatives are preferred.

1 General

Some general issues and features of colloquial writing style.

  • Using standard contractions instead of writing full forms (e.g., don't → do not, can't → can not / cannot)
  • Colloquial contractions, e.g., doncha, woulda
  • Unprofessional tone
  • Slang terms
  • Informal idioms
  • Vulgar or taboo expressions

2 Nouns

In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific noun, which will depend on the context.

colloquial more formal
person, people (often vague)
individual, Canadians, researchers, subjects, voters, males, participants ...
thing, something object, device, item, situation, circumstance, subject, element ...
man males, (male) participants / subjects, male voters, etc.
women females, (female) participants, etc.
part portion, section, sector, segment, aspect
way (e.g., a way to do something) manner, method, means, methodology, instrument, aspect

3 Pronouns

The second person you in writing sounds very informal or personal, and it is generally avoided in all forms of academic writing. Likewise, second-person verb forms are avoided. The first person I and we can sound informal, especially the singular I and me. These are generally avoided in formal writing, except when the authors need to comment directly, e.g., when explaining their rationale for doing something. First person is rarely used in science writing, occasionally in social science writing, and somewhat more often in humanities writing, such as in literature studies. If first person is needed, we is better than I.

4 Verbs

Second person verb forms, including commands aimed at the reader, are dispreferred and are rare in formal writing.

4.1 Light verbs

These are common, everyday verbs that are rather non-specific in meaning. These are distinguished from other verbs, in that (1) they are the first verbs learned in the language; (2) they have a great variety of meanings, and thus can be less specific semantically; and (3) they are often used in idioms, set expressions, and collocational expressions. In academic writing, many times it is better if these can be replaced with more specific verbs, and the choice will depend on the context. However, in set expressions like 'get married' it may be difficult to replace them.

light verb more specific
be exist, occur, equal, consist of, comprise (of), typify, appear, seem, tend...
have possess, contain, exhibit ...
In descriptive phrases, have can be replaced with with, e.g. "A patient who had the flu" → "A patient with the flu"
give provide, yield, produce, lead to, impart...
do perform, execute, carry out, implement, manage...
make create, produce, facilitate...
go, run, come proceed, journey, travel, progress, exceed...
set, put place, position, arrange...

4.2 Phrasal verbs

When possible, phrasal verbs should be replaced with more formal verbs (of Latin origin). For example, many ESL students use find out when a better expression for formal writing would be discover, determine, ascertain. Since phrasal verbs often have many meanings, the choice will depend on the context.

phrasal verb more specific
blow up inflate, explode
find out find, discover, ascertain, determine, decide on, assess
get over recover
go out exit, diminish, leave, depart, extinguish, cease, die, dim, expire, subside, decline, dwindle, recede, quit, retire, withdraw
go around circumvent, circumnavigate, sidestep, ignore, rotate, gyrate, orbit, circumduct, twist, revolve, meander, ramble
mix up mix, confuse
take out excise, remove, clear, exclude, omit, extirpate, destroy

5 Adjectives, adverbials, & other modifiers

In many contexts, these terms might be vague or too non-specific, and would be better if replaced by a more specific word, which will depend on the context.

colloquial more formal
bad negative, pejorative, poor, ineffective, adverse...
big, huge large, significant, enormous, incredible, gargantuan, gigantic, massive
a bit, a little bit slightly, somewhat
good sufficient, excellent, optimal, ideal, studious, prime, positive, effective, beneficial
kind of, sort of somewhat, slightly
a lot of, lots of many, numerous, a large number / amount of
tiny small, very small, minute

6 Transitional / connector expressions

colloquial more formal
anyway This is used informally for changing topics; in formal writing, simply starting a sentence with a full noun topic, or starting a new paragraph, will often suffice.
besides More formal alternatives are ‘in addition to’ or ‘furthermore’ - e.g., “In addition to these factors, ...”.
first of all first
like (is) similar to; for example, as, such as (As a connector, like can seem slightly colloquial. However, as a conjunction before verb phrases, or as a preposition, like is generally fine in contemporary formal English)
nowadays currently, recently
whether or not whether

Here are some examples of the more informal like, and more formal counterparts. Here, the informal like is used as a conjunction.

  • Don't do like what she did. → Do not do as she has done.
  • Activities like smoking and drinking are not allowed here. → Activities such as smoking and drinking are not allowed here.

Some examples of like that are perfectly fine, particularly when it is used as a preposition.

  • We don't want any characters like him around.
  • She looks just like me.

7 See also

  1. Easily confused verbs such as say, tell, talk