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:
A: 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:
A: Andrew’s just moved in with whatyamacallhim /ˈwɒtʃjəməkɔ:lɪm/?
A: 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:
1. and that kind of thing and stuff like that
2. and that sort of thing and stuff
3. and that type of thing and so on
4. and things like that and this, that and the other
5. 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.
A: Where’s Emma?
B: 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]
A: 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]
A: You spend too long on the phone.
B: Whatever. (This is a very impolite response and means ‘I don’t care’.)
[two friends talking]
A: 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.)
We use hedges to soften what we say or write. Hedges are an important part of polite conversation. They make what we say less direct. The most common forms of hedging involve tense and aspect, modal expressions including modal verbs and adverbs, vague language such as sort of and kind of, and some verbs.
Tense and aspect
I wondered if I could have a word with you? (less direct and more polite than Could I have a word with you?)
The answer could be that the trees have some sort of disease. (less direct than The answer is that …)
Maybe we should have a word with him about it? (less direct than We should or we must have a word with him about it.)
This is possibly the best performance in the Olympics.
It’s sort of difficult to say. (less direct than It’s difficult to say)
Could you just post this letter for me?
Some verbs (such as feel, suppose, reckon) can be used to hedge personal statements, that is, to make personal statements less direct:
We feel he should let them decide whether to buy the flat. (less direct than He should let them decide …)
I reckon that’s the best answer to the problem. (less direct than That’s the best answer to the problem.)
Hedges in academic writing
We use certain types of hedging in writing, especially in academic writing, so that statements don’t seem to rely simply on personal opinion.
We often use structures with it in the passive such as it is argued that and it has been agreed that:
It has been generally agreed that these new video phone technologies will transform everyday life. (a more cautious and less personal statement than I agree that …)
Kind of and sort of
Kind of and sort of are very common expressions in speaking. They soften other words and phrases so that they do not appear too direct or exact. Kind of is more common in American English. Sort of is more common in British English:
He’s kind of jealous that they have become such good friends.
I’m sorry but she’s just kind of lost interest in buying the car.
They said it was a chalet but it was more like a sort of wooden hut.
She’s spent the whole year sort of travelling around the world.
Sort, type and kind
Sort, type and kind all generally mean the same thing. They are words we use to refer to a group of people or things which share the same characteristics. We use these words very often when we describe things and we often find them in dictionary definitions:
Jazz isn’t the sort of music I can listen to for very long.
A fastener is a type of metal button which fits together to join clothes, for example a coat might have fasteners.
There are many kinds of birds coming to feed in my garden at the moment.
We often use sort, type and kind as vague expressions to suggest that we think something is like something else. We do this either because we are not sure, or because we do not want to be too specific and too direct:
[joking about a cheap perfume that someone got as a present]
And it was, it was really cheap, I mean, it was a sort of a rose perfume and I think the whole box only cost him one pound fifty, or something. You could probably run your car off it.
We sometimes use some before sort, type and kind as vague expressions:
Karen has made some sort of cake for the party.
There was some type of hole in the road and we didn’t see it.
There’s some kind of strange smell in here.
We often use and that kind of thing or and that sort of thing to refer to categories. We usually give an example or two from the category we are referring to first, e.g. apples and that kind of thing, bookshops and libraries and that sort of thing:
A: What are you doing tonight?
B: Well, first, I’ve got lots of marking and that sort of thing to do.
A: Are you taking anything to eat?
B: Just a few snacks – crisps and that kind of thing.
Thing and stuff
We use the general noun thing more commonly in speaking than in writing.
It is most commonly used to refer to physical objects, but we also use thing to refer to ideas, actions and events:
What’s that thing over there in the car park?
She always says that she hasn’t a thing to wear.
Can you put your things in the upstairs room? (things here = personal belongings)
Anger is a very dangerous thing in a young man.
So don’t rush him. These things take time and we certainly don’t want to upset him.
A holiday? That’s just the thing for you.
A: Hi Geoff. How’s things? (How’s things is a common informal greeting.)
B: Fine, thanks. How are you?
We often use thing in a similar way to wh-cleft constructions (What we need to do is …). It is also often used with to and with that-clauses (underlined):
The thing we need to know is why they missed the train.
The thing they said that we shouldn’t forget was to take a boat trip on the lake.
The best thing to do is to phone the doctor at once.
The thing that worries me most is the cost of the holiday.
In speaking, we commonly use the phrase the thing is. We use it when we want to focus on something, or to indicate that there is a problem:
The thing is … erm … we don’t have time to visit New York as well as Washington.
Yeah, that’s OK, but the thing is, he still hasn’t apologised for being late.
Thing is an example of vague language. It allows speakers not to sound too direct. We often use thing in phrases such as things like that, that kind of thing:
They’re cooking lots of different Italian and Spanish dishes and things like that.
When I worked in a newspaper office, there wasn’t time for eating lunch or that kind of thing, you know.
We also use thing to show both positive (usually affectionate) and negative attitudes, mainly when accompanied by appropriate adjectives:
Our cat is too old now to leave the house, poor thing.
You lucky thing! I wish I had the chance to visit New Zealand.
A: You’re going to get paint on that dress. Why don’t you get changed?
B: It doesn’t matter. It’s just an old thing.
Stuff is one of the most common nouns in speaking. It is more informal than thing. It is not at all common in writing.
Stuff is an uncountable noun. We use stuff in similar ways to thing, especially in vague language phrases such as stuff like that:
Where can we put our stuff? (our belongings) (very similar to, but more informal than, Where can we put our things?)
She didn’t have much advice to offer. She just told us to learn lots of new English vocabulary and stuff like that.
(Vague expressions English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
at 12 May
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