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Quantities, vague

3 December 2019

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


Quantities, vague


Being ‘vague’ about quantities (using vague words/phrases and round rather than precise numbers, or a combination of both) is a distinctive feature of spoken English:

Lots of traffic on the road, roughly thirty days, about two years ago, up to three hundred miles, thousands of emails, a week or so, round about a million pounds, hundreds of jobs to do, two thousand people or thereabouts, tons of sand (in my shoes), heaps of pasta (on my plate) etc.

Just to put one figure on it, the quintessentially vague expression ‘a couple of’ occurs (in the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus) 200 times per million words in conversation, but, unsurprisingly perhaps, less than ten times in an equivalent amount of academic prose.

In her 1994 book, ‘Vague Language’, Joanna Channell devotes three of her nine chapters (3-5) to language that is used for ‘approximating quantities’, providing an in-depth analysis of this feature (with some interesting cross-linguistic comparisons).

Rather than heap it all together, there’s an understandable tendency among linguists to categorise vague quantity language. A spoken grammar approach may be to divide it into three broad types:

1. Words that occur both in conversation and more formal English, e.g., some, many, approximately

2. Words/phrases that tend to be restricted to conversation but are not particularly common, e.g. oodles of, umpteen:

I’ve told you umpteen times that I’m not going.

We’ve still got oodles of time.

3. Words/phrases that are very frequent in spoken English, e.g. a bit (of), a couple of, (a) load(s) of:

A: Where are you going? We’ve still got loads to do before people arrive.

B: Into the garden. I won’t be long. I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make. I just need a bit of peace and quiet.

‘Bit’ is, as always in spoken English, an interesting little word. In the dialogue above, it probably means ‘a small amount’, but it can sometimes be used in an understated way to suggest almost the opposite:

I think we’ve got a bit of a problem here.

We could drive there tomorrow, but it’s a bit of a journey.


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