Vague language is very common, especially in speaking. We often add words and phrases such as about, kind of, sort of, and that kind of thing to make what we say less factual and direct:
There were about twenty people at the meeting.
It’s kind of cold in here.
Did you see lions and giraffes and that kind of thing when you were in South Africa?
We generally use vague language when we don’t know the name of something, or to make things sound less factual, or to talk about groups and categories.
When we don’t know the name of something
We can use vague expressions when we are not sure of the name of something. These expressions include: what do you call it?, what’s it called?, it’s a kind of X, it’s a sort of X, it’s a type of X, or something, thing, stuff:
Val’s been in hospital for tests. Did you know that?B:
No. What’s wrong?A:
Well, they’re not sure. She’s had to have that test, er, what do you call it? Where you have to go into a type of X-ray machine.B:
A CAT scan?A:
Yeah. She’s had that done but they still don’t know what’s causing her headaches.
She’s got a small dog, a kind of poodle, or something.
What’s that stuff you use when your lips get dry?
Where’s the thing for cleaning the window?
In very informal speaking, we sometimes say /ˈwɒtʃjəməkɔ:lɪt/, /ˈwɒtʃjəməkɔ:lɪm/, /ˈθɪŋəmi/, /ˈθɪŋəmədʒɪg/. These are informal versions of what do you call it/him/her, etc. We never write these words:
Andrew’s just moved in with whatyamacallhim /ˈwɒtʃjəməkɔ:lɪm/?B:
No, his friend from Manchester.
Making things sound less factual
Being very factual can sometimes sound too direct in speaking, and so we add vague expressions. These are called hedges: about, kind of, sort of, -ish (suffix), stuff, things:
There’s sort of something I don’t like about her. (more direct: There’s something I don’t like about her.)
It’s kind of bright in here. (more direct: It’s too bright in here.)
I can’t meet up later. I have too much stuff to do.
I forget so many things these days.
We especially use vague expressions before numbers, quantities and times to make them sound less factual:
I’ll see you at about 8 tomorrow morning for breakfast. Is that okay? (more direct: I’ll see you at 8 tomorrow morning for breakfast.)
We expect to take in or around two years to complete the project. (more direct: We expect to take two years and four months to complete the project.)
We’re meeting Veronica at four-ish. (more direct: We’re meeting Veronica at four.)
We’ve been living here for more or less five years. (more direct: We’ve been living here for five years and three months.)
Talking about groups and categories
We use certain vague expressions to make groups or categories. We usually give examples of members of the group or category (underlined below) and then add a vague expression, e.g. necklaces, bracelets and things like that.
Common vague expressions include:
and that kind of thing and stuff like that
and that sort of thing and stuff
and that type of thing and so on
and things like that and this, that and the other
and the like
Where are all the knives and forks and that kind of thing?
I need to buy cards and wrapping paper and stuff like that.
She’s gone to the doctor. She’s been getting pains in her stomach and feeling tired and things like that.
He never eats chocolate, sweets and that type of thing.
There are so many lorries and trucks and that sort of thing passing by our house, even during the night.
We sometimes find vague category expressions in formal speaking, but we usually use different expressions, such as: and so forth, et cetera, and so on, and so on and so forth:
[from a university lecture on literature]
The book has often been looked at from a feminist perspective and so forth but I want to look at it from a political perspective today.
[from a university lecture on communication]
If you use an advertisement in the newspaper, a thirty-second ad on television et cetera et cetera, it will receive quite a wide audience but there’s relatively little you can say in it. (ad = advertisement)
What are your views on the new government and the changes they have made and so forth?
We sometimes use vague category expressions in writing. The most common ones are: and so on and et cetera (which is shortened to etc.)
The new theatre will be used for big events such as opera, ballet, drama and so on.
The house is equipped with a cooker, washing machine, television, etc.
When can vague expressions be impolite?
Expressions such as stuff and whatever, whoever, whenever, whichever are sometimes used to be vague in an impolite way. These are especially impolite when they are used in a reply to a direct question asked by someone who is senior to us:
[a father to his son]
What did you do at school today?B:
Stuff. (This is not a polite reply. It can mean ‘I don’t want to talk to you’.)
[parent to teenage daughter]
You spend too long on the phone.B:
Whatever. (This is a very impolite response and means ‘I don’t care’.)
[two friends talking]
We’re meeting around seven at Mel’s place.B:
No, it’s at six thirty.A:
Well, whenever. (This is not as impolite, because it is between friends. A uses whenever to show that she is annoyed that she has been contradicted about the time and that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s six thirty or seven.)
(“Vague expressions” aus English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
- Adjectives and adverbs
Easily confused words
- Above or over?
- Across, over or through?
- Advice or advise?
- Affect or effect?
- All or every?
- All or whole?
- Allow, permit or let?
- Almost or nearly?
- Alone, lonely, or lonesome?
- Along or alongside?
- Already, still or yet?
- Also, as well or too?
- Alternate(ly), alternative(ly)
- Although or though?
- Altogether or all together?
- Amount of, number of or quantity of?
- Any more or anymore?
- Anyone, anybody or anything?
- Apart from or except for?
- Arise or rise?
- Around or round?
- Arouse or rouse?
- As or like?
- As, because or since?
- As, when or while?
- Been or gone?
- Begin or start?
- Beside or besides?
- Between or among?
- Born or borne?
- Bring, take and fetch
- Can, could or may?
- Classic or classical?
- Come or go?
- Consider or regard?
- Consist, comprise or compose?
- Content or contents?
- Different from, different to or different than?
- Do or make?
- Down, downwards or downward?
- During or for?
- Each or every?
- East or eastern; north or northern?
- Economic or economical?
- Efficient or effective?
- Elder, eldest or older, oldest?
- End or finish?
- Especially or specially?
- Every one or everyone?
- Except or except for?
- Expect, hope or wait?
- Experience or experiment?
- Fall or fall down?
- Far or a long way?
- Farther, farthest or further, furthest?
- Fast, quick or quickly?
- Fell or felt?
- Female or feminine; male or masculine?
- Finally, at last, lastly or in the end?
- First, firstly or at first?
- Fit or suit?
- Following or the following?
- For or since?
- Forget or leave?
- Full or filled?
- Fun or funny?
- Get or go?
- Grateful or thankful?
- Hear or listen (to)?
- High or tall?
- Historic or historical?
- House or home?
- How is …? or What is … like?
- If or when?
- If or whether?
- Ill or sick?
- Imply or infer?
- In the way or on the way?
- It’s or its?
- Late or lately?
- Lay or lie?
- Lend or borrow?
- Less or fewer?
- Look at, see or watch?
- Low or short?
- Man, mankind or people?
- Maybe or may be?
- Maybe or perhaps?
- Nearest or next?
- Never or not … ever?
- Nice or sympathetic?
- No doubt or without doubt?
- No or not?
- Nowadays, these days or today?
- Open or opened?
- Opportunity or possibility?
- Opposite or in front of?
- Other, others, the other or another?
- Out or out of?
- Permit or permission?
- Person, persons or people?
- Pick or pick up?
- Play or game?
- Politics, political, politician or policy?
- Price or prize?
- Principal or principle?
- Quiet or quite?
- Raise or rise?
- Remember or remind?
- Right or rightly?
- Rob or steal?
- Say or tell?
- So that or in order that?
- Sometimes or sometime?
- Sound or noise?
- Speak or talk?
- Such or so?
- There, their or they’re?
- Towards or toward?
- Wait or wait for?
- Wake, wake up or awaken?
- Worth or worthwhile?
- Nouns, pronouns and determiners
Prepositions and particles
- Among and amongst
- At, in and to (movement)
- At, on and in (place)
- At, on and in (time)
- Beneath: meaning and use
- By + myself etc.
- For + -ing
- In front of
- In spite of and despite
- In, into
- Near and near to
- On, onto
- Prepositional phrases
- Words, sentences and clauses
- discourse markers
- emphasising and downtoning
- people and places
- types of English (formal, informal, etc.)
- useful phrases
Das Wort des Tages
someone who stands on the street and asks people who are walking past to give money regularly to a charity