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Vague categories

14 January 2020

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


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