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An A to Z of spoken grammar: V

14 January 2020

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


V is for … vague categories


I’ve looked at ‘vague language’ twice before in this series (see 'P is for ... placeholders' and 'Q is for ... quantities, vague') . In this final entry on the subject, I’d like to say a couple of things about the phrases that indicate, normally in a relaxed and time-saving way, that something forms part of a category or type (without actually mentioning all the other members), e.g.:

Shall we go for a walk or something?

Here the category probably includes other, equally possible leisure activities outside the house, such as going for a coffee or a swim (though it’s also possible that the speaker really does favour a walk but, out of consideration for the listener, doesn’t want to present that as the only option).

Other common phrases with the element ‘thing’ in them include ‘… and things/stuff (like that)’and the more emphatic ‘and everything’ (fairly essential in some cicumstances, e.g. 'She's in love and everything' rather than 'She's in love and things.')

A: Did you buy anything at the market?

B: Yeah. I got some fish, veg, potatoes and things.


A: Is Katie really going into business, then?

B: Of course. She’s rented a shop, hired staff and everything.

The archetypal vague category phrase is, I suppose, ‘sort/kind of’, which can range in meaning from the specific to the fairly vague:

1) What sort of car have you got?

2) A: What does your sister do?    B: She’s a kind of doctor.

3) I’m feeling sort of tired.

In 1), ‘sort’ would usually be interpreted by the listener as ‘make’, and, in this sense, isn’t really ‘vague’.

In 2), B could mean a number of things, including: ‘She’s a type of doctor but I don’t know her medical specialism.’ OR ‘She isn’t really a doctor as such, but she does do something of a medical nature.’ OR ‘She’s a doctor and I know exactly what she does, but I don’t want to sound too detailed or technical, so I’ll be a bit vague.’

In 3) ‘sort of’ probably means ‘I can’t quite define how I’m feeling but it’s similar to tiredness’ (i.e. in the same category). Or it could simply be a conversational ‘filler’.

There's a full lesson plan with materials for teaching vague categories here:

Vague category language: web page or Word doc