Themes > Retailing > Vague language
Vague language

Vague language is not totally accurate or clear. Although some people think this is "bad" English, all native English speakers use vague language when they are unable or unwilling to give accurate information, or they think it is either unnecessary or socially inappropriate to do so. A good example of vague language is rounding up numbers when telling the time. Twenty-six minutes past two becomes:

It's about half past two.
It's almost half past two.
It's half two-ish.
It's nearly half past two.

Often, speakers use vague language not because they do not have accurate information, but because they feel it is more polite to make a less definite statement. That is wrong becomes:

"I'm not sure that's completely correct."

As short definite statements sometimes sound too assertive to native English speakers, they often add extra vague language to a sentence. This extra language has no extra meaning, it is just a social softener.

The use of vague language differs from language to language and is an important cultural consideration when doing business in a foreign language. Native English speakers, for example, can find Germans direct because German uses little vague language. On the other hand, for Germans, native English speakers can sound indecisive, inaccurate and lacking authority. In both cases they are reacting to characteristics of the language, not their business partner. Here are some more examples of vague language commonly used by native speakers of English.

List completers

Sometimes a speaker might start a list of some kind and then cannot remember the rest of the list or does not think the other items are important enough to mention. In these cases, list completers are ideal:

"I typed some letters, reports and other things like that."
"You have to ask a doctor or a lawyer or someone like that."

List completers are very common and use words such as things and stuff. Here are some more list completers:

and stuff like that
and things / stuff

or something like that
or stuff like that
or what / where / whoever


Placeholders are for when a speaker does not know or cannot remember the name of something or someone.

"I need a thingummy for the slide projector."
"I gave it to whatsisname in the accounts department."

Grammatically these simply replace the name of the person or object that the speaker cannot remember and never change their form. Other place holders include:

whatsername (for a woman)


Vague language is very common with numbers when expressing quantity, frequency or the time. Low numbers are often substituted by phrases such as a couple of / a few, whereas larger numbers are rounded up with about / around or replaced with lots of / loads of.

"Should we say around three or four o'clock?
"It cost around 20 pounds or so."
"It's about a million."
"The computer caused loads / lots of problems."

With vague language, a couple does not necessarily mean two, it could mean up to three or even four. When people do not want to give accurate numbers they can use the following:

"There were about 30 odd / or so people at the meeting."
"He's not that old. I'd say he's about 30-ish."
"There were a lot of / lots of / loads of problems."
"I've been to Prague a couple of / a few times."
"I think we need about / around 30 (or so)."


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