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 andthat 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?
No. What’s wrong?
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.
A CAT scan?
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/?
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.)
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, braceletsand things like that.
Common vague expressions include:
and that kind of thingand stuff like that
and that sort of thingand stuff
and that type of thingand so on
and things like thatand this, that and the other
and the like
Where are all the knives and forksand that kind of thing?
I need to buy cards and wrapping paperand stuff like that.
She’s gone to the doctor. She’s been getting pains in her stomach and feeling tiredand things like that.
He never eats chocolate, sweetsand that type of thing.
There are so many lorries and trucksand 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 perspectiveand 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 televisionet 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 madeand 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?
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.
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.
No, it’s at six thirty.
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.)