Precise Imprecision

English Grammar, Using slang English
“There were 50 odd people at his birthday party” – In this case, ‘odd’ means ‘about’ rather than strange! Photo: kris krüg, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Robin Davies provides a short-ish guide on the importance of being vague when speaking English

A common assumption among both teachers and students is that English should ideally be used with maximum clarity and precision. In contrast, the word “vague” carries negative connotations in the world of language learning: some people view vague language as ‘bad’ English which should be avoided where possible. However, if it is used appropriately, vagueness is an important part of natural spoken language.

In fact, research has shown that native speakers frequently use an impressive variety of vague language, either because they are unwilling or unable to give precise information, or because they feel that it is not necessary or socially acceptable to do so. In short, vague language permits spoken communication to be less restricted and more flexible.

Therefore, it is particularly useful for students of English to become aware of the ways that native speakers vary the precision of their language and in which contexts it is appropriate, or not appropriate, to express vague concepts. In this way, a student can become a competent communicator. Let’s look at some examples of vague language we often use:


What’s the word?
We can replace the name of a person or thing we don’t know or can’t remember with general words like thing, stuff, person, man, guy, woman:

“I need to buy a thing to fix my toilet.” = I don’t know exactly what
“I gave my form to that guy from human resources.” = I don’t remember his name/you don’t need to know it

We can also use the above vague words when both the speaker and listener know which objects are being talked about:

“Where do you keep the cooking stuff?” = I don’t have time to list all the cooking items

Hand tools, English Grammar, English Slang
“I need to buy a thing to fix my toilet” = I don’t know exactly what is needed

Grammatically, thing(s) refers to countable objects while stuff replaces uncountable objects or a collection of countable objects. Other vague words which can be used to represent an object are a thingy, a thingummy, and a whatsit.

Completing a list
Sometimes we start lists and then may think that it is not important to mention all of the other items in that particular list. In these cases, we can use list-completing expressions:

“It was a Christmas filled with eating, drinking and so on.”
“You have to ask a doctor or a pharmacist or someone like that.”
“He wants to get married, buy a house and stuff like that.”

The phrases sort of, and kind of, are extremely common in English. They are used before nouns and adjectives when we cannot think of the exact word we need:

“We travelled to the island in a sort of small boat.”
“This painting is kind of unusual.”

We can also use these expressions to make our language sound less direct, and therefore more polite:

“It´s kind of hot in here.” (more direct meaning: “it´s too hot in here!”)

Numbers are commonly combined with vague language to express quantity, frequency or the time. All of the following phrases have a similar meaning to ‘approximately’, but are less formal:

“Let´s meet at around half past five.”
“It´ll take you about 30 minutes to walk there.”
“There were 50 odd people at his birthday party.”

Finally, we can add ‘-ish’ to the end of adjectives and numbers to mean ‘approximately’:

“I’d say he’s perhaps fiftyish. I’m not sure.”
“She’s wearing a blueish  dress.”
“I think he’s got greyish hair.”

As you can see, vague language is useful. Of course, it is easy to think of contexts in which vagueness might be inappropriate, such as in a legal report or in a university lecture.  In these cases highly precise language is not only expected but also necessary. Nevertheless, vagueness is a common phenomenon which forms a significant part of everyday communication in English. So, the next time you find yourself unable to remember the word of a thing or person, or if you don’t want to fully commit to a precise time, number or description during a conversation, then relax and keep things vague-ish!

Robin Davies is an experienced English language teacher at Externado University. He has been living in Colombia for five years.

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