Spoken English

Understanding slang

Understanding slang

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Understanding slang

​​In a nutshell

Slang is a type of informal language. It is mostly used in speaking, and the type of slang you use depends on factors related to your identity. Standard English is the form of English you should use in most of your writing at school – but there is a place for using and analysing slang in non-fiction texts.

What is slang?

Slang is informal language that is used more in spoken forms than in written forms. Slang serves as a kind of "code" that marks out different social groups, and it usually reflects the group of people using it. To illustrate this, below is a list of British slang:

very tired
cup of tea

Where does slang come from?

Slang is strongly linked to identity. This means that the place you were brought up, your family/friends and the way they speak, your interests and your age all contribute towards the slang you might use in daily life.

Slang, like all aspects of language, are in a constant state of change. The slang you use is not likely to be the same as the slang your parents used. For example, the phrases "on fleek" (flawless/stylish) and "spill the tea" (to share gossip) are all recent examples of slang used by Generation Z.

Standard English

Standard English is the term given to the type of English that is used in formal pieces of writing. It is a highly "regularised" form of the language, meaning the rules for spelling and grammar have been largely set out and documented. It is the form of the language that is understood by the broadest number of speakers. You are likely to have been taught to read and write Standard English, and it is the form found in published media such as newspapers.

Slang is entirely absent in Standard English since it is designed to be a neutral way of speaking with no clues as to the writer's identity.

Where (and where not) to use slang

In most of your writing at school, you will be encouraged to use only Standard English. For example, in an analysis, you should aim to write in a way that is as neutral as possible, without any "flair" or personality, since this would distract away from the analysis you are writing. It is important to stress that the way you speak to your friends is not "wrong" or less sophisticated – quite the reverse is true! However, there is a time and a place to employ slang.

Creative writing is where you can really make use of your extensive slang vocabulary. In texts where you do want to show personality, like diary entries or narrative stories, feel free to draw from the informal language you know. When writing dialogue, you want to reflect the way people actually speak, so this is the perfect place to use a wee bit of slang, mate!


"In the Palace bar. I'd been there an hour or so with two or three other chaps. I was a bit squiffy."

J.B. Priestley – An Inspector Calls

This is an example of slang used in a literary text – a play, to be more specific. Since Priestley wishes to reflect the way people spoke at the time, a slang word for drunk, "squiffy", is employed. This is a word coined in the late 18th century and was popular among upper-middle class English people in the early 20th century, the time in which the play was set.

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