Types of Language

The content in this section is from the following open textbook:

Interpersonal Communication: A Mindful Approach to Relationships

Author(s):  and 

If you read or watch different types of programming, you will probably notice that there is a difference in language use based on the environment, who you are talking to, and the reason for communicating. In this section, we will discuss the different types of language. The types of language used will impact how others view you and if they will view you positively or negatively.

Formal vs. Informal Language

You probably know by now that how we communicate in different contexts can vary greatly. For example, how you compose a text to your best friend is going to use different grammatical structures and words than when you compose an email to your professor. One of the main reasons for this difference is because of formal and informal language. Table 4.1 provides a general overview of the major differences between formal and informal language.

Table 4.1 Formal vs. Informal Language

Formal Language

Informal Language

Used in carefully edited communication.

Used in impromptu, conversational communication.

Used in academic or official content.

Used in everyday communication.

The sentence structure is long and complicated.

The sentence structure is short, choppy, and impro- vised.

The emphasis is on grammatical correctness.

The emphasis is on easily understood messages using everyday phrases.

Uses the passive voice.

Uses the active voice.

Often communicated from a detached, third person perspective.

Perspective is less of a problem (1st, 2nd or 3rd).

Speakers/writers avoid the use of contractions.

Speakers/writers can actively include contractions.

Avoid the inclusion of emotionally laden ideas and words.

It allows for the inclusion of emotions and empathy.

Language should be objective.

Language can be subjective.

Language should avoid the use of colloquialisms.

It’s perfectly appropriate to use colloquialisms.

Only use an acronym after it has clearly been spelled out once.

People use acronyms without always clearly spelling out what it means.

All sentences should be complete (clear subjects and verbs).

Sentences may be incomplete (lacking a clear subject and/or verb).

The use of pronouns should be avoided.

The use of personal pronouns is common.

Avoids artistic languages as much as possible.

Includes a range of artistic language choices (e.g., allit- eration, anaphora, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, etc.).

Arguments are supported by facts and documented research.

Arguments are supported by personal beliefs and opinions.

Language is gender neutral.

Language includes gender references.

Avoids the imperative voice.

Uses the imperative voice.

Formal Language

When applying for a job, you will most likely use formal language in your cover letter and resume. Formal language is official and academic language. You want to appear intelligent and capable, so formal language helps you accomplish those goals. Formal language often occurs when we write. Formal language uses full sentences and is grammatically correct. Formal language is more objective and more complex. Most legal agreements are written in formal language.

Informal Language

Informal language is common, everyday language, which might include slang words. It is continuous and casual. We use informal language when we talk to other people. It is more simple. Informal language tends to use more contractions and abbreviations. If you look at your text messages, you will probably see several examples of informal language.


Jargon is the specialized or technical language of a specific group or profession that may not be understood by outsiders.23 If you are really into cars or computers, you probably know a lot about the different parts and functions. Jargon is normally used in a specific context and may be understood outside that context. Jargon consists of a specific vocabulary that uses words that only certain people understand.

The business world is full of jargon. Joanna Cutrara created a list of 14 commonly heard jargon phrases used in the business world:24

  • Low Hanging Fruit
  • Leverage
  • Open the Kimono
  • Giving 110%
  • Out of Pocket
  • Drink the Kool-Aid
  • Bio Break
  • Blue Sky Training
  • Tiger Team
  • Idea Shower or Thought Shower
  • Moving the Goal Post
  • Drill Down
  • Gain Traction

If you’re like us, chances are you’ve heard a few of these jargon phrases in your workplace. Heck, you may have even found yourself using a few of them. Your workplace may even have some specific jargon only used in your organization. Take a minute and think through all of the jargon you hear on an average day.


Colloquialisms are the use of informal words in communication.25 Colloquialism varies from region to region. Examples might be “wanna” instead of “want to” or “gonna” instead of “going to.” It shows us how a society uses language in their everyday lives. Here’s a short list of some common colloquialisms you may have used yourself:

  • Bamboozle – to deceive
  • Be blue – to be sad
  • Beat around the bush – to avoid a specific topic
  • Buzz off – go away
  • Fell through the cracks – to be neglected
  • Go bananas, or go nuts – go insane or be very angry
  • Gobsmacked – shocked
  • Gonna – going to
  • Hit a writer’s block – unable to write
  • Hit the hay – to go to sleep
  • Pop into my head – to have a new thought
  • Sticktoitiveness – to be persistent
  • Threw me for a loop – to be surprised
  • Throw someone under the bus – to throw the blame on another person
  • Wanna – want to
  • Y’all – you all
  • Yinz – you all


Slang refers to words that are employed by certain groups, such as young adults and teens.26 Slang is more common when speaking to others rather than written. Slang is often used with people who are similar and have experience with each other. Here is a list of some common slang terms you may use in your day-to-day life:

  • BAE (baby / before all else)
  • On Fleek (looking perfect)
  • Bye Felica (saying goodbye to someone you don’t like)
  • The Tea (gossip)
  • Bro (typically a male friend)
  • Cash (money)
  • Cheesy (cheap or tacky)
  • Ship (wanting people to be in a relationship, whether real or fictional)
  • Frenemy (someone who is both a friend and an enemy)
  • Thirsty (being overly eager or desperate)
  • Throw Shade (to insult another person)
  • Woke (being acutely aware of social injustice within society)

How many of these slang words do you use? What other slang words do you find yourself using? When it comes to slang, it’s important to understand that this list is constantly evolving. What is common slang today could be completely passé tomorrow. What’s common slang in the United States is not universal in English speaking countries.


Idioms are expressions or figures of speech whose meaning cannot be understood by looking at the individual words and interpreting them literally. Idioms can help amplify messages. Idioms can be used to provide artistic expression. For instance, “knowledge is power!”

Idioms can be hard to grasp for non-native speakers. As such, many instructors in the English as a Second Language world spend a good deal of time trying to explain idioms to non-native speakers. Table 4.2 presents a wide array of different idioms.

Here is a video below of a non-native English speaker providing an example of how Figurative Language (such as an idiom) can be so confusing:


Table 4.2 A wide array of different idioms
Idiom Explanation


About. I’ll meet you at 4ish.

a basket case

A wreck. He was a basket case after he was thrown off the basketball team.

a breath of fresh air

Refreshing/fun. She’s a breath of fresh air.

a change of heart

Change my mind. I’ve had a change of heart.

a blessing in disguise

Something bad that turns out good. Losing his job turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

a dead end

That’s a dead end job–time to find a new one.

a gut feeling

Feeling in my stomach. I have a gut feeling that everything is going to turn out all right.

a matter of opinion

It’s a matter of opinion whether eating fried tarantulas is a gourmet treat.

a piece of cake

That test was a snap–it was a piece of cake. (easy).

a ripoff

You spent $500 for a watermelon! What a ripoff! You were cheated.

a pain in the neck

A pest. His little brother is a real pain in the neck.

be in hot water

Be in trouble. If you tell your boss off, you’ll really be in hot water.

in the same boat

We’re in the same situation. We’re all in the same boat–so be cool.

on the same wavelength

We have the same ideas and opinions. We’re on the same wavelength.

be on the ball

Very sharp. Very smart. He’s really on the ball.

it’s only a matter of time

Very soon. It’s only a matter of time until his boss realizes that he is the one stealing money from the till.

be that as it may

As things stand. Be that as it may, I think you should reconsider your decision to move to Antarctica.

up in arms

Really angry. His father was up in arms when he learned that he had crashed his new car.

up in the air

Not sure. Plans are up in the air–we haven’t decided what to do yet.

bend over backwards

Go out of your way. She really bent over backwards to make my stay enjoyable.

Big deal!

Not important (sarcastic). Losing an old sock is not a big deal.

cost an arm and a leg

Very expensive. His new Ferrari cost an arm and a leg.

cross your fingers

For good luck. Cross your fingers that I pass the English exam with flying colors.

draw a blank

I can’t remember. I drew a blank when I tried to remember his brother’s name.

Easier said than done

More difficult than it seems.

Am fed up with

Sick and tired of something. I’m fed up with whining friends who have everything!

from scratch

Make from basic ingredients. Her carrot cake was made from scratch.

for the time being

For now. For the time being, everything is fine at work.

get cold feet

Feel too scared to do something. John wanted to ask Maria out but he got cold feet and decided not to.

get out of the wrong side of the bed

In a bad mood. He must have gotten up out of the wrong side of the bed today.

get the picture

Understand. Do you get the picture?

get your act together

Get organized/stop wasting time. You better get your act together or you’re going to fail all your classes.

give it a shot

Try. Why not try bungee jumping. Give it a shot.

give him a piece of your mind

Get angry and tell someone off. If I were you I would give him a piece of your mind.

give him the cold shoulder

Ignore someone. Brett walked right past me without saying a word. He gave me the cold shoulder.

go all out

Do your utmost for someone or something. His parents went all out for his graduation party.

go downhill

Get worse. After he got divorced, everything went downhill.

go up in smoke

Evaporate/disappear. His dreams of being a professional athlete went up in smoke when he broke his leg.

have a chip on your shoulder

I think you are great. He has such a chip on his shoulder that he hardly ever relates to anyone.

had it up to here

Can’t take any more. I’ve had it up to here with noisy students!

mixed feelings

Positive and negative feelings together. I have very mixed feelings about her marrying a fisherman.

second thoughts

Thinking again about a decision. I’m having second thoughts about trekking in Greenland this summer.

throw a fit

Get really angry. His mother threw a fit when she heard that he lost her iPhone.

I’m all ears

To listen intently. Tell me about your wedding plans–I’m all ears.

in the bag

Certain. His new job is in the bag. He signed the contract.

in the middle of nowhere

Way out in the country. Their ski chalet is in the middle of nowhere.

Just my luck!

Bad luck. Just my luck to lose the winning lottery ticket.

keep an eye on

Watch carefully. Will you keep an eye on my nephew while I walk the dog?

bear in mind

Keep it in mind. Bear in mind, learning a new language isn’t as easy as it seems.

learn by heart

Memorize. You have to learn irregular verbs by heart.

let the cat out of the bag

Spill the beans. Tell a secret. Don’t let the cat out of the bag. Keep his surprise birthday party a secret.

make my day

Make my day great. The guy I have a crush on finally called me. He made my day.

miss the point

Don’t understand the basic meaning. You are missing the point entirely.-.

no way

Impossible. You got all A’s on your exams and you never studied. No way!

don’t have a clue

I have no idea. I don’t have a clue what the professor was talking about.

don’t have the faintest idea

Don’t understand. I don’t have the faintest idea of what that article was talking about.

off the top of my head

Without thinking. Off the top of my head, I think it’s worth $6 million.

on the dot

Ontime. He arrived at 6 o’clock on the dot.

out of sight, out of mind

You forget someone you don’t see anymore.

out of the blue

Suddenly. Guess who called me out of the blue?

play it by ear

Make no plans–do things spontaneously. Let’s just play it by ear tonight and see what comes up.

pull someone’s leg

Kid someone. Stop pulling my leg. I know you are kidding!

red tape

Bureaucracy. It’s almost impossible to set up a business in Greece because there is so much red tape.

read between the lines

Understand what is not stated. If you read between the lines, you’ll realize that he is trying to dump you.

safe and sound

Fine. The Boy Scouts returned safe and sound from their camping adventure in Yellowstone National Park.

see eye to eye

Agree. He doesn’t see eye to eye with his parents at all.

sour grapes

Pretend to not want something that you are desperate for. It’s just sour grapes that he is criticizing George’s villa in Italy.

slipped my mind

Forgot. I meant to call you last night, but it slipped my mind.

small talk

Chitchat. It’s important to be able to make small talk when you meet new people for the first time.

talk shop

Talk about work. What a boring evening! Everyone talked shop- and they’re all dog walkers!

the icing on the cake

Something that makes a good thing great. And the icing on the cake was that the movie for which he earned $12 million, also won the Oscar for best picture.

the last straw

The thing that ruins everything. When my boss asked me to cancel my wedding to complete a project–I said that’s the last straw and I quit!

time flies

Time goes fast. Time flies when you are having fun.

you can say that again

You agree emphatically. Kanye West is a great singer. You can say that again!

you name it

Everything you can think of. This camp has every activity you can think it–like swimming, canoeing, basketball and you name it.

wouldn’t be caught dead

Not even dead would I do something. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that dress to the ball.

she’s a doll

Someone really great. Thanks for helping me out. You’re a doll.

full of beans

Lively–usually for a child. Little children are usually full of beans.

full of baloney

Not true. She’s full of baloney–she doesn’t know what she is talking about.

like two peas in a pod

Very similar. His two brothers are like peas in a pod.

a piece of cake

Very easy. My math test was so easy–a real piece of cake.

sounds fishy

Suspicious. Doubling your money in an hour sounds fishy to me.

a frog in my throat

I can’t speak clearly. Ahem! Sorry I had a frog in my throat.

smell a rat

Something is suspicious. The policeman didn’t believe the witness–in fact, he smelled a rat.

go to the dogs

Go downhill. Everything is going to the dogs in our town since the new mayor took office.

cat got your tongue

Silent for no reason. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?

for the birds

Awful. How was the new Batman movie? Oh, it was for the birds.

pay through the nose

Pay lots of money. They paid through the nose to hold their wedding at Buckingham Palace.

tongue in cheek

Being ironic. I meant that tongue in cheek. I was kidding.

all thumbs

Clumsy. He couldn’t put that simple table together–he’s just all thumbs.

get off my back

Leave me alone. Bug off! Get off my back!

drive me up a wall

Drive me crazy. Rude people drive me up a wall.

spill the beans

Tell a secret. Hey, don’t spill the beans. It’s a secret.

hit the ceiling

Blow up. His dad hit the ceiling when he saw his dreadful report card.

go fly a kite

Get lost! Oh, leave me alone! Go fly a kite!

dressed to kill

Dressed in fancy clothes. Cinderella was dressed to kill when she arrived at the ball.

in stitches

Laughing a lot. We were all in stitches when we heard the latest joke.

feel like a million dollars

Feel great. I just slept for 15 hours–I feel like a million dollars.

at the end of my rope

Can’t stand it anymore. The mother of four little children is at the end of her rope.

my head is killing me

Something hurts. My head is killing me–I should take an aspirin.

that’s out of the question

Impossible. Me? Stand up and sing and dance in front of the whole school–out of the question!

I’m beat

Very tired.

It’ll knock your socks off!

Thrills you. You’ll love this summer’s action movie. It’ll knock your socks off.

beats me

Don’t know. What’s the capital of Outer Mongolia? Beats me!

hands down

No comparison. Hands down Mykonos is the world’s most beautiful island.


Behaves perfectly. I can’t stand Matilda–she’s such a goody-goody and no fun at all.

pain in the neck

A big problem. Washing dishes is a pain in the neck.

like pulling teeth

Very difficult. Trying to get 2-year-olds to cooperate is like pulling teeth.

for crying out loud

Oh no! For crying out loud–let me finish this book–will you?

I’m at my wit’s end

I’m desperate. I’m at my wit’s end trying to deal with two impossible bosses.

like beating a dead horse

A waste of time. Trying to get my father to ever change his mind is like beating a dead horse.

out of this world

Fantastic! My vacation to Hawaii was out of this world!

cost an arm and a leg

Very expensive. A Rolls Royce costs an arm and a leg.

go figure

Try to guess why. Our English teacher gives us five tests a week and this week– no tests at all. Go figure.

in the nick of time

Just in time. The hero arrived in the nick of time to save the desperate damsel.

I’m up to my eyeballs in

Very busy. I’m up to my eyeballs in work this week.

I had a blast/a ball

A great time. I had a blast/ball at Sandy’s slumber party.

win-win situation

Both sides win. Selling their old stock of iPhones 10s was a

win-win situation. They got rid of the useless phones, and we bought them really cheaply.

I’m swamped

Very busy. Let’s get together next week–this week I’m swamped.

It’s a steal

Fantastic bargain. Getting a new computer for $300 dollars is a steal.

the sticks

Way out in the country. Who would want to live in the sticks–what would you do for excitement?

break the ice

Start a conversation. Talking about the weather is a good way to break the ice when you meet someone new.

give me a break

Leave me alone! Come on! Give me a break! I’ve been working all day long- and I just want to play a little bit of Angry Birds….

like talking to the wall

A waste of time. Dealing with many teenagers is like talking to a wall–they won’t even respond to your questions.

see eye to eye

Agree. I hardly ever see eye to eye with my parents.

It’s about time

It’s time. It’s about time you started your homework–it’s midnight!

pays peanuts

Pays hardly anything. This job pays peanuts–$1 an hour!.

sleep like a log

Sleep soundly. Last night I slept like a log and didn’t hear the thunderstorm at all.


Do great. I aced the math test. I got 100%.

easy as pie

Super easy. The English test was as easy as pie.


Someone who tells secrets. Don’t tell Sophie your secrets or the whole town will know them.

don’t bug me

Don’t bother me. Don’t bug me–I’m busy.

by the skin of my teeth

Barely manage something. I passed the geography test by the skin of my teeth.

can’t make head nor tail of

I can’t understand. I can’t make head nor tail of this math chapter.

cool as a cucumber

Very calm. The policeman was cool as a cucumber when he persuaded the man not to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Reused here from Kifissia under a Creative Commons Attribution License.‌ https://tinyurl.com/rtxklo5 Table 4.2 Common Idioms


Cliché is an idea or expression that has been so overused that it has lost its original meaning. Clichés are common and can often be heard. For instance, “light as a feather” or “happily ever after” are common clichés. They are important because they express ideas and thoughts that are popular in everyday use. They are prevalent in advertisements, television, and literature.

Improper Language

Improper language is not proper, correct, or applicable in certain situations.29 There are two different types of improper language: vulgarity and cursing. First, vulgarity includes language that is offensive or lacks good taste. Often, vulgar is lewd or obscene. Second, cursing is language that includes evil, doom, misfortune on a person or group. It can also include curse or profane words. People might differ in their perceptions about improper language.

Biased Language

Biased language is language that shows preference in favor of or against a certain point-of-view, shows prejudice, or is demeaning to others.  Bias in language is uneven or unbalanced. Examples of this may include “mankind” as opposed to “humanity.”


Table 4.3 Biased Language


Consider Using

Black Attorney



Businessperson, Business Owner, Executive, Leader, Manager, etc.


Chair or Chairperson

Cleaning Lady / Maid

Cleaner, Cleaning Person, Housecleaner, Housekeeper, Maintenance Worker, Office Cleaner, etc.

Male Nurse


Male Flight Attendant or Stewardess

Flight Attendant

Female Doctor

Physician or Doctor


Personnel or Staff


Legislator, Member of Congress, or Member of the House of Representatives


Postal Employee or Letter carrier




Police Officer / Law Enforcement Officer




People with Disabilities


Person Diagnosed with Schizophrenia


Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual Men or Women

One specific type of biased language is called spin, or the manipulation of language to achieve the most positive interpretation of words, to gain political advantage, or to deceive others. In essence, people utilizing spin can make language choices that frame themselves or their clients in a positive way.

Ambiguous Language

Ambiguous language is language that can have various meanings. Google Jay Leno’s headlines videos. Sometimes he uses advertisements that are very abstract. For instance, there is a restaurant ad that says, “People are our best ingredient!” What comes to mind when you hear that? Are they actually using people in their food? Or do they mean their customer service is what makes their restaurant notable?

When we are trying to communicate with others, it is important that we are clear in our language. Weneed others to know exactly what we mean and not imply meaning. That is why you need to make sure that you don’t use ambiguous language.


Euphemisms also make language unclear. People use euphemisms as a means of saying something more politely or less bluntly. For instance, instead of telling your parents/guardians that you failed a test, you might say that you did sub-optimal. People use euphemisms because it sounds better, and it seems like a better way to express how they feel. People use euphemisms all the time. For instance, instead of saying this person died, they might say the person passed away. Instead of saying that someone farted, you might say someone passed gas.

Relative Language

Relative language depends on the person communicating. People’s backgrounds vary. Hence, their perspectives will vary. I know a college professor that complains about her salary. However, other college professors would love to have a salary like hers. In other words, our language is based on our perception of our experiences. For instance, if someone asked you what would be your ideal salary, would it be based on your previous salary? Your parents? Your friends? Language is relative because of that reason. If I said, “Let’s go eat at an expensive restaurant,” what would be expensive for you? For some person, it would be $50, for another, $20, for someone else it might be $10, and yet there might be someone who would say $5 is expensive!

Static Evaluation

Often times, we think that people and things do not change, but they do change. If you ever watch afternoon talk shows, you might see people who go through amazing transformations, perhaps through weight loss, a makeover, or surgery or some sort. These people changed. Static evaluation states

that things are not constant. Things vary over time, and our language should be representative of that change. For instance, Max is bad. It is important to note that Max might be bad at one time or may have displayed bad behavior, but it may not represent how Max will be in the future.


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