The Outsiders is written in a colloquial style. Hinton employs slang, dialogue, and repetition to create an informal style that is a realistic representation of how teenagers in 1960s Oklahoma, specifically the greasers, communicated with one another. Hinton has stated that she wrote The Outsiders in response to a lack of realistic depictions of teenage life in novels she was reading in the 1960s, and the use of this colloquial style offers an immediate clue to the reader that they should prepare themselves for a raw and truthful story that will sometimes feel foreign and disorienting.
As the narrator of the novel and Hinton’s proxy, Ponyboy’s goal in telling this story is to describe a subculture that might be unknown to adults or even to teenagers outside of Oklahoma. At the beginning of the novel, the colloquial style can confuse the reader. Deciphering what the characters mean when, for example, they use “tuff” rather than “tough” takes some effort. But as the novel goes along and the reader because more comfortable with the slang, a change occurs and the reader begins to feel like a part of Ponyboy’s gang because of a growing understanding of their language.
Slang in the novel is a secret code. It is a way Ponyboy’s gang communicates with one another, and it sets them apart from adult society, from the Socs, and even from other greasers. When Ponyboy introduces the reader to the term “greaser” in the fourth paragraph of the book, he is sharing this secret code with the reader. Ponyboy wants the reader to understand and empathize with his group of friends and to see both the good and the bad sides of his life. In order to do this, he knows he will have to reveal some secrets, starting with their slang. Explaining the slang is a sign of trust between Ponyboy and the reader. When Ponyboy writes, “We get jumped by the Socs. I’m not sure how you spell it, but it’s the abbreviation for the Socials, the jet set, the West-side rich kids. It’s like the term ‘greaser’ which is used to class all us boys on the East Side,” he is revealing elements of his life that he might not feel uneasy about, such as the fact that he lives on the wrong side of the tracks and that he sometimes gets beaten up.
The novel’s colloquial style supports the first-person narration of the storytelling. Ponyboy is intelligent, sensitive, and well-read, but he is also fourteen. The use of slang and colloquialisms supports the author’s goal of presenting a realistic depiction of the lives of teenage greasers. The word choice, therefore, is often simple and straightforward, such as, “It was quiet except for the sound of our feet on the cement and the dry, scraping sound of leaves blowing across the street.”
In contrast to the simple descriptions of the setting or passing events, the main focus of the novel is on the characterizations of Ponyboy and his friends. It is at the times when Ponyboy really wants the reader see his friends as vividly as he does that he employs more descriptive language and more complex sentences, such as when he introduces Dallas: “He had an elfish face, with high cheekbones and a pointed chin, small, sharp animal teeth, and ears like a lynx. His hair was almost white it was so blond…” With such an introduction, Dallas leaps off the page in all his wild, animalistic glory because Ponyboy is desperate for the reader to really see and experience his remarkable friends.
Though the word choice is straightforward, the sentences can often become long and circuitous as Ponyboy tries figure out why greasers and Socs can’t get along. Throughout the book, Ponyboy attempts to categorize everyone he meets, whether it’s his gang or another gang across town or the Socs or the people he meets in the country. An example of this is when he’s trying to explain exactly what his gang is like: “We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder, too...Greasers are almost like hoods; we steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight every once in a while.” Ponyboy is trying to define these different groups in order understand what it is that prevents them from getting along with one another. By comparing his gang to the Socs and the hoods, he is, consciously or unconsciously, looking for meaningful connections between these groups. Once these different factions realize how slim the differences that separate them are, perhaps they can move away from violence and toward understanding. These long, meandering sentences reflect the difficulty and, possibly, the impenetrability of the project Ponyboy has embarked on.