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An A to Z of spoken grammar: P

26 November 2019

Spoken grammar: lexico-grammatical features of conversation highlighted in corpus research.


P is for … placeholders


It’s not surprising that, under the pressure of time, we use a lot of ‘vague language’ (bit, like, sort of, whatever etc.) in conversation. In this piece and the next (‘Q is for … quantities, vague’), I’m going to look at two types of vague language.


‘Placeholders’ are words like ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’ that you use instead of the actual or more precise words, usually because, in the middle of a conversation, you can’t remember a particular word (or you’re having difficulty defining something), but also, sometimes, because you don’t want to use it: it may sound pretentious, or be difficult to pronounce, or you may feel, in a relaxed conversation, that the listener doesn’t need the detail.


Here are some examples, with brief explanations:


A: Are you going to that thing on Friday after work?

B: Not sure yet. Depends how I feel.

[A leaving party, perhaps, or a presentation of some sort.]


A: I saw thingy in town.

B: Who do you mean?

A: You know. Jake’s brother.

[‘Thingy’ tends to be used for people, rather than 'thing'.]


A: Have you got that thingummy for the pizzas?

B: It’s in the cupboard above the sink if you can find it.

[Pizza cutter? ‘Thingamajig’, ‘thingummabob’ (spellings vary) and ‘doodah’ are also possible. Or simply 'thing/thingy'.]


A: Was the film any good?

B: Yeah. Whatsername was in it. The actress who was in ‘Fargo’.

[‘Whatsername’, literally ‘What’s her name? ‘Whatsisname’ is the male equivalent.]


To find out about teaching spoken grammar, visit my online course, Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers.


(Q is for …  quantities, vague: 3 December 2019)


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