154 Slang and Idioms

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize slang and idioms.
  2. Learn to avoid using slang and idioms in formal writing.

Words are the basis of how a reader or listener judges you, the writer and speaker. When you write an academic paper or speak in a business interview, you want to be sure to choose your words carefully. In our casual, everyday talk, we often use a lot of “ums,” “likes,” “yeahs,” and so on. This everyday language is not appropriate for formal contexts, such as academic papers and business interviews. You should switch between different ways of speaking and writing depending on whether the context is formal or informal.


Hey guys, let’s learn about slang and other cool stuff like that! It will be awesome, trust me. This section is off the hook!

What do you notice about the previous set of sentences?

First, you might notice that the writer or speaker has used the phrase “guys.” You want to avoid gendered language and embrace more inclusive language, replacing guys (because there may be women or non-binary people you’re addressing) with “folks,” “all,” “friends,” “team,” or “y’all.” See the chapter on Gender-Inclusive Language for more information.

Secondly, you might notice that the language sounds informal, or casual, like someone might talk with a friend or family member. The paragraph also uses a lot of slang. Slang is a type of language that is informal and playful. It often changes over time. The slang of the past is different than the slang of today, but some slang has carried over into the present. Slang also varies by region and culture. The important thing to understand is that slang is casual talk, and you should avoid using it in formal contexts. There are literally thousands of slang words and expressions. Table 5.17 “Slang Expressions” explains just a few of the more common terms.


Table 5.17 Slang Expressions

Slang Word or Phrase Meaning
check it out, check this out v. look at, watch, examine
chocoholic, workaholic, shopaholic n. a person who loves, is addicted to chocolate/work/shopping
stuff n. things (used as a singular, noncount noun)
taking care of business doing things that need to be done
pro n. a person who is a professional
crack up v. to laugh uncontrollably
veg (sounds like the veg in vegetable) v. relax and do nothing
dude, man n. person, man
all-nighter n. studying all night
cool adj. good, fashionable
gross, nasty adj. disgusting
pig out v. eat a lot, overeat
screw up v. make a mistake
awesome adj. great

Exercise 1

Edit the business e-mail by replacing any gendered language and slang words and phrases with more formality and appropriateness.

Dear Ms. O’Connor:
I am writing to follow up on my interview from last week. First of all, it was awesome to meet you. You are a really cool lady. I believe I would be a pro at all the stuff you mentioned that would be required of me in this job. I am not a workaholic, but I do work hard and “take care of business.” Haha. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
M. Ernest Anderson


Idioms are expressions that have a meaning different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words in the expression. Because English contains many idioms, nonnative English speakers have difficulties making logical sense of idioms and idiomatic expressions. The more you are exposed to English, however, the more idioms you will come to understand. Until then, memorizing the more common idioms may be of some help.


Table 5.18 Idioms

Idiom Definition
a blessing in disguise a good thing you do not recognize at first
a piece of cake easy to do
better late than never it is better to do something late than not at all
get over it recover from something (like a perceived insult)
I have no idea I don’t know
not a chance it will definitely not happen
on pins and needles very nervous about something that is happening
on top of the world feeling great
pulling your leg making a joke by tricking another person
the sky is the limit the possibilities are endless

What if you come across an idiom that you do not understand? There are clues that can help you. They are called context clues. Context clues are words or phrases around the unknown word or phrase that may help you decipher its meaning.

  1. Definition or explanation clue. An idiom may be explained immediately after its use.

    Sentence: I felt like I was sitting on pins and needles I was so nervous.

  2. Restatement or synonym clues. An idiom may be simplified or restated.

    Sentence: The young girl felt as though she had been sent to the dog house when her mother punished her for fighting in school.

  3. Contrast or Antonym clues. An idiom may be clarified by a contrasting phrase or antonym that is near it.

    Sentence: Chynna thought the 5k marathon would be a piece of cake, but it turned out to be very difficult.

Pay attention to the signal word but, which tells the reader that an opposite thought or concept is occurring.

Key Takeaways

  • Informal language is not appropriate in formal writing or speaking contexts.
  • Slang and idioms might not make logical sense to nonnative speakers of English.
  • Be cognizant in adopting gender-neutral or inclusive language.
  • It is good to be aware of slang and idioms so they do not appear in your formal writing.

Writing Application

Write a short paragraph about yourself to a friend. Write another paragraph about yourself to an employer. Examine and discuss the differences in language between the two paragraphs.


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Write What Matters Copyright © 2020 by Liza Long; Amy Minervini; and Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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