1. Avoiding Unnecessary Detail
First, let’s look at the most important use of vague language.
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, speaking is often the opposite. Imagine that you ask your friend, What are you doing tomorrow? Look at two possible answers:
- 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.
- I’m going into town to buy some stuff, then I’m meeting someone for a coffee.
Which answer sounds more natural? The second one, right? Can you explain why it sounds better?
In speaking, being too detailed can sound very formal and unnatural. It also wastes time: if I ask you a simple question like, What are you doing tomorrow? of course I don’t want to know every detail of where you’re going, what time, who with, and so on.
So what language can you use here?
The word thing is very useful. 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.
We also often 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.
- They sent me 34 emails yesterday.
- They sent me loads of emails yesterday.
- I saw six of my old school friends last night.
- I saw a few of my old school friends last night.
- I have to finish three more things, and then we can go.
- I have to finish a couple more things, and then we can go.
In all of these cases, it’s more natural to avoid giving the exact number unless the number is somehow important.
Another way to use vague language is when shortening a list.
Imagine that your friend just came back from vacation, and you ask your friend, “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.
This 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 are 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.
Finally, it also allows the other person to ask for more details if they’re actually interested. Instead of throwing information at someone, you’re letting the other person choose where to take the conversation.
Let’s look at some more examples of this:
- They serve curries, kebabs, grilled chicken and that kind of thing.
- He told me about his new job, how his kids are doing, and so on.
- We could go see a film, go for a walk or something like that.
In all of these cases, we could continue the list, but we don’t need to.
Using vague language to avoid unnecessary details is a very common and important use, but vague language also has other uses. Let’s look:
2. Using Vague Language to be Indirect
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 quite impolite. It sounds a bit like a criticism. By using the phrase kind of, the second answer is vaguer and therefore more indirect.
This makes it softer and more polite.
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.
Saying The food is spicy again sounds very direct, and could sound rude.
- He sort of annoys me sometimes.
Of course this is a criticism of someone, but using sort of makes it softer.
- I kind of just want to stay in tonight.
Saying I want to stay in tonight sounds very 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 just a casual meeting. For example:
- Let’s meet at four. –> More direct, could sound more like an order.
- Let’s meet at about four. –> More indirect, sounds more like a suggestion.
- Can you get here at ten? –> More direct
- Can you get here around ten? –> More indirect
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, friendlier and generally more polite.
3. Using Vague Language When You’ve Forgotten a Word/Name
Many English learners complain that they can’t remember vocabulary. Well, I have good news: you don’t always need to! No native speaker knows every word in English, and native speakers 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.
Words 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:
Again, these words cannot be used in written English! They are also very informal, so you really shouldn’t use them unless you really 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!
4. Using Vague Language to be Rude
Before, we saw how you can use vague language to sound more indirect or polite. But sometimes, you can also use vague language to show that you don’t want to talk to someone.
For example, if you ask someone, “What did you do at the weekend,” and the person answers by saying, “Stuff,” this sounds rude. It’s like saying, “I don’t want to tell you.”
Another example, if you ask your friend, “What do you want to do tomorrow,” and your friend says, “Whatever,” this also could sound quite rude. It’s like saying, “I don’t care what we do.”
Generally, vague language in a very short answer—one or two words—can sound rude. It can sound like you don’t want to talk to someone.
So, use vague language when you speak—but remember that how you use it is important.
OK, that’s the end of the lesson. I hope you learned some new stuff about… whatchamacallit… vague language.
Thanks for watching!