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Improve Spoken English with Vague Language – Video Lesson

by Oli Redman on 2 September, 2016 , No comments

In this lesson, you can learn how to use vague language in English.

Here’s a question: do you ever feel like you can’t find the right word to express what you want to say? Learning about vague language could help you.

The word ‘vague’ means that something is not clear or detailed. In spoken, informal English, fluent speakers often use vague language.

Using vague language will make your English sound more natural. It will also make it easier to speak fluently, because you can communicate without needing to use precise vocabulary.


QUIZ: Vague Language

Test your ability to use vague language with this 16-question quiz! You can check your understanding of the key words and phrases from the lesson. You’ll see the correct answers at the end of the quiz.


1. How to Use Vague Language in Conversations

Improve Spoken English with Vague Language - conversation imageMarie: So, what are your plans for tomorrow?

Martin: First, I’m going into the city centre. I need to buy a shirt and some toothpaste, then at 10.30 I’m meeting William Bukowski for coffee at the café on Gloucester Square. What about you?

Marie: I have to spend two hours working in the morning, then I’m meeting six old friends. We’re going to go for a drink, then to an Italian restaurant where they serve 44 different kinds of pizza.

Martin: Really? I love Italian food. I especially like caprese salad, spaghetti vongole, pizza romana, ravioli, tiramisu, panna cotta… [fades out]

Did that sound like a natural conversation to you? Hopefully, it didn’t. Why do you think that is? What made it sound slightly weird? The problem was that there was too much detail. If someone asks you an everyday question like ‘What are your plans for tomorrow?’, you don’t need to give every detail of your plans. This is where vague language can be useful. Vague language lets you avoid unnecessary detail, which allows you to express your ideas more efficiently.

Let’s see another version of this conversation. This time, we’ll use vague language to avoid unnecessary detail.

Marie: So, what are your plans for tomorrow?

Martin: I’m going into the city centre to buy some stuff, then I’m meeting a friend for a coffee. You?

Marie: I have to do some work in the morning, then I’m meeting a few old friends later. We’re going for a drink, then to an Italian restaurant where they have lots of different kinds of pizza.

Martin: Really? I love Italian food, especially the pasta. I really like spaghetti vongole and things like that.

Here’s a question: can you remember all of the differences between the two dialogues? Let’s look at some of the language you heard.

First, the words ‘thing’ and ‘stuff’ are useful. In the dialogue, you heard:

  • I’m going into the city centre to buy some stuff.

You can use ‘thing’ or ‘things’ to refer to an object or objects. For example:

  • Give me that thing to clean the window.
  • Don’t forget to take your things with you.

You can also use ‘stuff’ in a similar way. Remember that ‘stuff’ is uncountable. For example:

  • We’re only going for two days, so we don’t need much stuff.
  • Every time I move apartments, I throw loads of stuff away.

Both words, ‘thing’ and ‘stuff’, can also be used to talk about things you have to do. For example:

  • I have to go to that thing tonight.
  • I have a lot of stuff to do next week.

You can also use vague language when talking about numbers. When talking about numbers or quantities, you can avoid unnecessary detail by using expressions like ‘lots of’, ‘loads of’, ‘a few’, ‘a couple’, etc. For example, instead of saying:

  • They sent me 34 emails yesterday.

You can say:

  • They sent me loads of emails yesterday.

Instead of saying:

  • I saw six of my old school friends last night.

You can say:

  • I saw a few of my old school friends last night.

And, instead of saying:

  • I have to finish three more things, and then we can go.

You can say:

  • I have to finish a couple more things, and then we can go.

In these cases, it’s more natural to avoid giving the exact number unless the number is somehow important. Finally, another way to use vague language is when shortening a list. Imagine that your friend just came back from vacation, and you ask, ‘What did you do?’ Your friend says ‘We went swimming in the sea, sunbathed on the beach, read books, ate in restaurants, took a surfing lesson, visited different villages, slept a lot, went for a bike ride and spent one day sightseeing in the city.’ This doesn’t sound good, right? It sounds quite robotic. In informal speech, we usually shorten long lists by using a phrase on the end like:

  • …and that kind of thing
  • …and things like that
  • …and so on
  • …or something like that

So, your friend might say:

  • We went to the beach, did some sightseeing and things like that.

Improve Spoken English with Vague Language - beach sceneThis is more natural. It’s also more polite in a way. When you say something like this, you’re giving some details but not every detail. This shows that you’re engaged in the conversation, but it also shows that you understand that the person you’re talking to probably doesn’t want to hear every single detail.

Using vague language to avoid unnecessary details is common, but vague language also has other uses. Let’s look:

2. Using Vague Language to Be Indirect or Polite

Martin: Really? How about going to the cinema tomorrow?

Marie: Could do. What were you thinking?

Martin: Really? We could see that documentary about climbing in Yosemite. It looks really interesting.

Marie: I’m not interested in seeing that. I’d choose to watch something else, like that Japanese horror film everyone’s talking about.

Martin: Really? I guess we could do that. What time should we meet?

Marie: Come to my place at four o’clock, then we can walk down together.

Martin: Really? Alright.

Of course, in some situations, vagueness is bad. For example, if you have a contract or a legal document, it shouldn’t be vague! In general, we prefer to avoid vagueness in writing. However, in everyday speech, using vague, indirect language can help you to sound more polite. In this dialogue, I was direct. This might be fine if you’re talking to someone you know well, but being so direct could seem rude in another situation.

Let’s see how you could use vague language to sound more polite in the same situation.

Martin: Really? How about going to the cinema tomorrow?

Marie: Could do. What were you thinking?

Martin: Really? We could see that documentary about climbing in Yosemite. It looks really interesting.

Marie: That’s not really my thing. I’d kind of prefer to watch something else, like that Japanese horror film everyone’s talking about.

Martin: Really? I guess we could do that. What time should we meet?

Marie: You could come to my place around four o’clock, then we can walk down together?

Martin: Really? Alright.

What changed? If you just look at the words, it’s almost the same, but nonetheless the tone is quite different. Here, Marie was more indirect. Instead of saying ‘I’m not interested in seeing that’, she said ‘That’s not really my thing’ Instead of saying ‘I’d choose to watch something else’, I said ‘I’d kind of prefer to watch something else’. Instead of saying ‘Come to my place at four o’clock’, she said ‘You could come to my place around four o’clock’.

Let’s see what’s happening here. Imagine that a friend comes to your home. You notice your friend looks cold, so you ask, ‘Shall I turn on the heater?’ Compare two answers:

  • Yes, please. It’s cold in here.
  • Yes, please. It’s kind of cold in here.

What’s the difference? The first answer sounds very direct, which could sound impolite. It sounds a bit like a criticism. By using the phrase ‘kind of’, you make the second answer vaguer and therefore more indirect. You can use the phrases ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’ in this way. For example:

  • Can I have some milk? The food’s kind of spicy.
  • I kind of just want to stay in tonight.

Saying ‘I want to stay in tonight’ sounds direct. Adding ‘kind of’ makes it sound softer. You might also use this with times. For example, you can use the words ‘about’ or ‘around’ when arranging to meet someone, especially if it’s a casual meeting. For example: ‘Let’s meet at four.’ This is more direct, which could sound like an order. ‘Let’s meet at about four.’ This is more indirect, so it sounds more like a suggestion.

Of course, you don’t always want to use vague language. If your friend needs to be here by ten o’clock at the latest, then you shouldn’t say ‘Can you get here around ten?’ But in other cases, using vague language will make you sound more indirect, which often sounds more polite.

3. Using Vague Language When You’ve Forgotten a Word

Martin: Really? Have you seen their apartment? It’s amazing!

Marie: Who do you mean?

Martin: Really? Julia and her husband, … Ah, you know, whatsisname… Can’t remember. Anyway, you know them, right?

Marie: Vaguely. I haven’t been to their place.

Martin: Really? It’s incredible. It’s like something out of a sci-fi film. They have that thing, you know…

Marie: I don’t know.

Martin: Really? That whatchamacallit, I’ve never seen one before.

Marie: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Martin: Really? Ah… It has some weird name… It’ll come to me in a minute.

Often, English learners speak about “native speakers” as if native English speakers are all-knowing, but that isn’t the case. No native speaker knows every word in English; people also forget words all the time. So what can you do if you can’t remember the word for something? Vague language can be your friend! Take a look:

  • What does this thingy do?
  • You can use this little whatsit to take the back off your phone.
  • I found a little metal thingamajig in my desk drawer. No idea where it came from.

Improve Spoken English with Vague Language - paper clipsWords like ‘thingy’, ‘whatsit’ or ‘thingamajig’ are not normally used in written English. You can use them when you’re speaking if you don’t know what something is called. You can also do this with people if you’ve forgotten someone’s name. For example:

  • I’ve got a meeting with whatsisface from the ad company tomorrow.
  • He’s moving in with whatsername—that girl he met at his friend’s wedding.

Whatsisface’ is a word made from the question ‘What is his face,’ which makes no sense, and it’s not really clear where it comes from. ‘Whatsername’ is easier to understand: it’s made from the question ‘What is her name?’ You can change the words to talk about men or women: ‘whatsisface’ or ‘whatserface’; ‘whatsisname’ or ‘whatsername’.

Again, these words cannot be used in written English! They’re also informal, so you shouldn’t use them unless you know the person you’re talking to well. You should also never use these words directly to someone’s face. You can’t say: ‘Hey, whatsisface! Good to see you, but I’ve forgotten your name.’ This does not sound good!

Thanks for watching!

Oli RedmanImprove Spoken English with Vague Language – Video Lesson