Accidental Outdated Slang in YA

When it comes to writing for teenagers, the general rule regarding language is this:

Don’t use slang in your YA novel.

I abide by this rule, yet it’s come to my attention that I may be using slang accidentally! WTF?


Let’s back up for a second and state why putting slang in your YA novel is not a smart move. First of all, it’s highly likely that you the author are not a teenager, so your slang will either not be current or be current but used incorrectly. For example, if you tell your kids you’re going to “watch Netflix and chill” tonight and they give you a disgusted look, that’s a hint that you don’t actually know what that expression means to young adults. However, if you’re confident your slang is up-to-date and used accurately, beware of this second reason: all slang dates your book. By the time you publish, teen terminology will have changed drastically. Hell, current slang will probably be obsolete before you finish your 1st draft! So unless you’re writing a period piece or historical YA, or making up your own teen terminology (like in THE MAZE RUNNER), save yourself the trouble and just don’t use slang.

Okay, no problem! I won’t. Except then I read this article and kind of freaked out:

8 Words That Totally Reveal You Are Not a Millennial

Eek! There are words in there that are such a natural part of my vocabulary that I don’t even consider them slang! For those of you who didn’t click the link, here’s the rundown of words that apparently out me as an old person (though I’m not old enough to be Generation X, I’m apparently too old to be a Millennial. Also, whatever happened to Generation Y? Online sources say Y and Millennial is the same thing… but a birth date span of early 80s to early 2000s is, like, way too big. So I consider myself part of the Lost Y generation.)

Okay, back to those words that teens allegedly don’t use. Here’s the list:

1. Totally

2. Bummer

3. Sweet

4. Downer

5. Cool

6. Right

7. Awesome

8. Bonus

Confession: I still use all those words. Okay, not “bummer” but I never liked that one. And “downer” and “bonus” I can see are kind of slang-y. But the others? Are you kidding me?! The rest have been around for decades! Especially “cool”. And now… teenagers don’t say cool anymore?!

Maybe I should calm down. It’s just one source. The smart thing for me to do would be go talk to some teenagers. Since I don’t have any of my own, I’ll do the next logical thing: ask Facebook. Oh, and I’ll ask some real live teenagers too. Here’s what I found out…

This article doesn’t reflect the millennials I know. They told me they still say “cool” and “awesome”. Teacher friends also confirmed they hear their students say these words all the time. Even “totally” and “sweet” and “right” get some love.

Now if I was a good reporter I’d have gotten some sound bites and testimonials from verified millennials to back up my research, but I started coaching gymnastics this weekend and I was way too busy managing chaos to be organized enough to get proof! So you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or ask the millennials in your life.

The conclusion from a writer’s perspective? Even though some slang endures for decades, keep it to a minimum in your writing. A general rule is not to overuse any word, let alone colloquialisms.

But… some may worry if their teenage characters don’t use slang words, they won’t sound like teenagers and teenagers will hate the book! To that I say – hogwash! And read YA. You can convey a teenage voice without slang. Plus, though teenagers (and adults for that matter) tend to repeat certain words a lot (eg.: “like” and “you know” and their favourite positive exclamation – mine admittedly is “awesome”), they rarely know they’re doing it and often find reading a character who speaks in such a way annoying.

Whew! I don’t know about you guys, but I feel a lot better about slipping the occasional “Cool!” into my manuscript. What about you? Do you worry about slang or the lack thereof in your writing?


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

25 thoughts on “Accidental Outdated Slang in YA”

  1. Totally radical article! I’m working on a book that stars the 9-14 year old crowd, except it’s NOT contemporary. It takes place in the summer of 1980. I’d forgotten about ‘bummer’ so we’ll be adding that to their lexicon asap. I already have them bogarting Pringles, calling each other douche bags, and watching Land of the Lost while eating Norman cereal. Heehee. Either way, this made me laugh. My daughter (who is 24) says bummer, awesome, sweet, cool, and right on a daily basis. I’ve never heard her say ‘totally rad’ though or call anything ‘bogus’. And, what does ‘bonus’ mean? That’s a new one to me.

    1. Glad to help refresh your 80s slang! 🙂 I’m tempted to set my current contemporary YA in the ’90s to take advantage of my out-dated teen vocabulary. Though it’s encouraging that your daughter uses many of the classics! I hope “awesome” and “cool” never go out of style.

  2. I’m not a teenager, but I am a millennial and I use pretty much all of those words in daily speech, as do my friends. The generation below me might not though. Be sure to ask a lot of people!

  3. This is very timely because I’m working on a YA and because dialogue is one of my strengths I’ve been thinking a lot about how high schoolers talk. What’s interesting to me is that as soon as I read this I realized how little slang I’m using, and how little slang I read in YA.

    Now, I’m cheating somewhat because my characters go to an elite private schools so I’m orienting them to be more articulate/techy and less chatty/hip.

    1. Glad you found the article timely, Kate! And yes, most YA writers stay away from slang for the reasons I mentioned, so you won’t find much of it in YA novels unless the story takes place in a certain era or location where a specific vernacular is important. Good luck with your novel!

  4. I am writing a piece where characters are living in an alternate reality that takes place in Seattle. The catch is that, although the civilization is advanced, the style and culture remains trapped in a Noir style. So would it be more realistic to use slang from that era or should I just steer clear of it altogether? I did see that you mentioned creating your own slang, but sometime I feel I would be way too cheesy in doing that.

  5. I had this exact conversation a while back, and I asked a CP to spy on her teen daughters so I could use their slang words – and avoid my outdated ones. The list she gave was very similar, and I was surprised to see “cool” was in there. Made me feel young.


  6. You really should stop worrying about that guy. Slang varies by region anyway. I moved from one region to another as a kid and couldn’t understand ANYTHING for a long time. When I was a teenager my brother (5 years younger) said kids his age don’t use “dude.” I have friends in their teens/20s who use “dude” all the time. There’s a lot of variation by subculture and even just from one school in a district to another.

    1. That’s very true! And don’t worry, I’m not stressing about this anymore. TBH, I needed something to blog about this week because I’ve been waaaaay too busy to write my novel and learn anything craft-wise to share with people. 😉

  7. Right? Awesome post. I totally use these words and they’re slang? Bummer. (Just seeing how many I could fit in before coffee.) Completely agree. I always thought about this and, honestly, it’s kept me from finishing any YA novel because…dialogue. Not sounding authentic is huge but, yes, the slang would date the novel. It took me forever to get used to the language in Maze Runner but now I think he’s brilliant for doing that.

    1. Hahaha! Thanks for the laugh, Sarah. And yes, MAZE RUNNER will never seem dated unless teens start using – and then discarding – those slang words he made up. But that hasn’t happened yet.

    1. Ha! Yep. I realized this weekend how much I say “Awesome!” – about twice a minute when coaching gymnastics. I really need to come up with more varied compliments. Though none of the kids have told me no one says that anymore. 😉

  8. I write fiction aimed at women aged 30+. Just a few days ago I was having an online chat with a much younger than me author friend who writes YA and romantic fiction geared at 20 somethings. She’s just turned 30 herself. I expressed that I had trouble with certain scenes and why and she told me I should just draw on my previous experience like she did when writing them. That’s where our age differences and background became very apparent. Then she asked me if there were younger people in my life who I could ‘borrow from’. Well, of course there are.

    Here’s the thing, Millenials – in my experience – don’t talk unless you’re speaking directly to them. They’re world is in their phones and they communicate, not via voice even over their phones but via text and SnapChat and Instagram and on and on. How could we possibly pick up on current slang when nothing is being spoken aloud anyway?

    1. Millennials do much of their communicating online, but they do have to talk out loud sometimes! And it’s interesting to note what Terry said in her comment: teen slang is often written, not verbal. I remember when LOL became popular; everybody used it online, but few people said it out loud. The takeaway from that? Using regular words in teen dialogue shouldn’t sound that off. *fingers crossed*

  9. You had me worried with that list, though it’s definitely a real concern. This happens with slang in any genre, though. I put in a slang for “cool” in my scifi (salty) because I figured it was the natural progression after “sweet”…. since the new generation seems to always use the antonym of the generation before them, haha. Well, now kids are using it (not because of me, of course, but far sooner than I thought it would catch on!)

  10. I adore this post! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with it. I am 56 and wrote a 13 year old boy in my last but one novel – it took my husband to point out to me that, mostly, young male teenagers don’t actually TALK in all this stuff but just use it in internet chatting, too, and just to make him talk normally most of the time – I wrote a 19 year old girl in my last novel and just put words like ‘totally’ and ‘awesome’ where we (as grownups) would say something else – yes, they still say awesome where I’m from, too!

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