Without a doubt one of the most confusing areas of art has to do with architectural styles and in particular those involving domestic architecture...not domestic simply as in USA, but domestic in terms of domiciles--homes. But speaking of USA, of these styles, probably the most difficult and terribly overused is the term "Colonial." Technically, that means those in existence before 1776, but even that limitation does little to simplify the designation. It's like referring to all twentieth century architecture as "modern."
The earliest "colonial" architecture might rightly be called Postmedieval English though in appearance the "post" part might be a bit optimistic. It typically features brick construction, a central chimney mass serving two to four fireplaces, small doors, and even smaller, leaded glass window panes. Southern versions sometimes had chimneys at either ends of the gabled roof. The phrase plain Jane comes to mind. The clapboard "saltbox" style, sometimes with a front overhang of the second story is a later variation of this style. A little later, small dormers appeared. A little later still, especially in the North, numerous gables developed as in the "House of Seven Gables."
In the Nieuw Amsterdam/New York area there developed what has been called the Dutch Colonial style. Usually one-and-a-half stories, the most notable feature is its gambrel roof, having two distinctively different angles of slope. Tradition has it that Dutch carpenters applied ship building techniques, in a sense, creating an inverted "hull" to make up the roof. This had the advantage of creating a great deal of head room on the second level and thus more usable living space. Dormers are also quite common along with flared eaves in the front and little or no overhang on the ends. Small front porches and larger side porches are quite common in more recent adaptations. Stone, and wood were the most common building materials. What we commonly think of as Cape Cod style is an offspring of the Dutch Colonial root.
In the South we have the distinctly different French Colonial style typical of the Mississippi Delta area. Quite often of brick or stone with a hipped roof (sloping on four sides), they were often only one-room deep with outside entrances to each room and tall, slender, shuttered, multi-paned windows. Rural versions sometimes have a raised front porch with the main roof overhanging it supported by slender wooden posts. Urban versions often have painted, wrought iron balconies. Dispersal of summer heat and humidity seems to have been a prime architectural concern. Brick versions are often painted white. Often a roofed, pavilion style porch extends around on all four sides, even on two-storied structures. Window treatments are usually very simple except in cases where there is an English influence. Arched doors and windows are not uncommon.
In the far West and Florida we find Spanish Colonial architecture of brick, stone, adobe, or stucco, sometimes with wooden second stories added later. Exposed beams both inside and out are sometimes seen. Red tile roofs are common in all cases. In the West, flat or very gently sloping "shed" type roofs can be found. Doors and windows are often mere holes in the wall differing only in size and shape. The use of wood is mostly limited to floors and roof areas. Doors and shutters appear "homemade" except in areas where English influences reached. Cantilevered, roofed balconies are quite common too on larger, later versions of this style.
The most common visualization we have of Colonial architecture should, more rightfully be called "Georgian." It takes its name from the reign of England's King George III and is common all up and down the East coast and as far inland as the Appalachian Mountains. Examples with nearly every different type roof mentioned so far exist. Door and window treatments were simple in the beginning, but as this style grew in popularity, Adam and Palladian styles with their Greek and Roman influences became common. Some grew quite ornate featuring broken pediments, arches, and fancy masonry. Brick was the most common material, especially for those still in existence 250 years later. Add-on wings, dormers, and roof balustrades helped decorate these homes. Southern versions often included Grecco-Roman or "Mount Vernon" porticos, ideal for hot, sunny days. In the North, entry porticos were small or non-existent. Most versions were two floors but examples of three storied structures often exist in urban areas along with end-abutted "townhouse" derivatives. This style, in the early nineteenth century eventually morphed into the still more ornate and urban "Federal" style, which is often lumped in with the Colonial style. So, next time you hear someone talk about "colonial" architecture, tell them to be more specific.