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Vague language

3 June 2020

The two lesson plans below are adapted from my online course, Spoken Grammar: a Guide for English Language Teachers. Their aim is to give learners at intermediate level or above the language they need to be ‘vague’ in everyday conversations. The length of the lessons depends on how much material you decide to use. The first lesson plan contains a brief introduction to vague language.

LESSON PLAN ONE: vague category language

LESSON PLAN TWO: vague placeholders and quantities

Please feel free to use these plans in any way that suits your classroom or online requirements. You are welcome to copy and paste this web page into a separate document for editing or printing purposes. To access Word versions, please go to this page of my website, and you’ll see a link at the top. (And, if you want to find out more about 'spoken grammar', keep reading!)

 

LESSON PLAN ONE

Vague category language

(If you would like to watch a video of me talking you through this lesson, click here. This will take you to Udemy.com, where my online course is hosted. Scroll down to ‘Course content’ and expand the section ‘Vague language’. Then click on ‘Preview’ where you see ‘vague categories’ for free access. All the material that you see on the slides is reproduced in the lesson plan below.)

Introduction

The term ‘vague language’ has been in use for many years. Joanna Channell wrote an influential book on it more than 25 years ago. (Channell, J. 1994. Vague Language. Oxford University Press.)

Your students will already be familiar with a lot of vague language: words like probably or about, for example, or approximate numbers like thousands or quantities like a few. Such words are used in formal and informal English, in writing and speaking, and are well covered in traditional teaching materials.

But there’s also a useful vague language in everyday conversational English: words and phrases such as thing, stuff, sort of and bit.

There are several reasons why you might use this kind of language: you may not have the time or knowledge to be precise; you may need some ‘filler’ language while you think; or you might simply want to put the listener at ease by being fairly relaxed about things.

And finally, although it’s called ‘vague language’ you can’t actually be vague about how you use it. As with all spoken grammar, it has its own rules of usage and collocation. (Once it is learnt, however, it can make life easier for students: lists, for example, or unknown vocabulary can be replaced with a phrase like ‘or something’ or a word like ‘thing’.)

In this first lesson, I’m going to focus on ‘vague category language’: language that implies that the thing mentioned is part of a category or type, without actually mentioning all the members of that category. I’ll cover these items:

…and stuff/things (like that)           …and everything         …or something

sort/kind of                 -ish and -y

 

Procedure

1. One way to start with the first three items is to show your students some dialogues, and ask them to fill in the gaps. This will get them thinking about the language in context. Here’s the exercise:

Choose one of these phrases for each dialogue: and things/or something/and everything

A: What’s happening over there? Has someone won the lottery __________________?

B: No, they’re watching a football match. Someone must have scored.

 

C: What did you get up to on your holiday? Anything exciting?

D: I’m afraid not. Just swam, walked, shopped __________________.

 

E: Vanya’s gone? I don’t understand. She didn’t even say goodbye.

F: I know. She got a new job in Paris, sold her car, packed up her flat _____________!

 

G: Is Katie really going into business, then?

H: Of course. She’s bought a shop, hired staff __________________.

G: Amazing! But it’s fairly risky, isn’t it, from a financial point of view?

 

I: We’ve got about an hour before we need to leave for the airport.

J: OK. Shall we go for a walk __________________?

I: Sure. I’ll get my coat.

 

K: Did you buy anything at the market?

L: Yeah. I got some fish, potatoes __________________.

K: Great. Get cooking, then!

 

Here are the answers:

A: or something                    D: and things           F: and everything

H: and everything                J:or something          L: and things

 

2. Now ask your students in pairs to read these dialogues again and work out the differences in meaning between these three phrases. (If you can, get students to read them aloud in pairs, and check intonation. On my video version of this lesson – see the top of this page for details – you can hear me reading some of the dialogues.)  

Here are the suggested answers:

or something = or an alternative but similar thing; note that ‘or anything’ may be used in negative statements: I lent him my bike, but he didn’t say thanks or anything.

and things = and other things which are similar (i.e. in the same category); the full version, which is also quite common, is and things like that, and the word thing could be replaced by stuff, which is a little more colloquial. The phrase and that sort/kind of thing has a similar meaning.

and everything = and the other things that complete the idea, or make a complete idea stronger; grammatically, you could say in the third dialogue: She got a new job in Paris, sold her car, packed up her flat and things! but the context of the dialogue almost demands the use of and everything instead. Here’s another example where and everything is normally required: They’re a couple now. They’re in love and everything!

All three phrases are flexible in being able to represent noun or verb phrases:

I got some fish, veg, potatoes and things. Just swam, walked, shopped and things.

 

3. Students will see more examples of these three phrases, and get a chance to practise them, later in the lesson. Let’s move on to sort of and kind of.

Show your students these three examples, and ask them to think about the meaning of the phrase sort of both generally and in each example.

1. What sort of car have you got?

 

2. A: What does your sister do?

    B: She’s a sort of doctor.

 

3. I’m feeling sort of tired.

 

Here are suggested answers:

In the phrase sort of, ‘sort’ essentially means category, but it can range from something quite specific to something very general.  

1. What sort of car have you got?

Here ‘sort’ almost certainly means ‘make’, ‘brand’ or ‘type’, and the answer could be, for example, ‘a Renault Clio’ or ‘a Toyota Yaris’.

2. A: What does your sister do?

    B: She’s a sort of doctor.

‘Sort’ here could mean ‘type’ here as in: ‘She’s a doctor but I don’t know her medical specialism’, or it could be an example of vague language use: ‘I do know her specialism, but I don’t want to sound too detailed or technical.’

3. I’m feeling sort of tired.

The vague use of ‘sort of’ here either means ‘I can’t quite define how I’m feeling but it’s similar to tiredness’ or ‘I’m not quite sure how I’m feeling but I’ll use ‘sort of’ as a filler to give myself time to think.’

Make the point here or earlier that ‘kind of’ has exactly the same meaning.

 

4. Here’s a dialogue. You could gap it, or mix up the order of lines, or leave it as it is, and just get students to read it, aloud if possible. In the first part, there are examples of sort of and kind of used before verbs, adjectives and nouns. (You can hear me reading out this part in the video mentioned at the top of this page.) In the second part, you’ll see more examples of the language covered at the beginning of the lesson.

A: What are you doing this weekend?

B: I’m kind of hoping to get out of town on Saturday, into the countryside.

A: To get some fresh air?

B: Sort of. And some exercise. I might take the bike. And you?

A: It’s kind of difficult to say. Depends on the weather. I’ve joined a sort of tennis group. Not a club. We just use What’s App to         see who’s free on Saturday morning. But the courts are outdoors, so if it’s pouring…

B: And on Sunday?

A: Oh, I’ve got to do some tidying, shopping and stuff like that.

B: Do you want to get together in the evening, perhaps? We could see a film or something?

A: As long as it’s not sad. I’m tired of sad films.

B: There’s that new musical, isn’t there? It’s got singing, dancing and everything! I can’t remember the name, though.

 

5. After students have worked with the dialogue above, you may want, if it’s possible in your teaching situation, to try a ‘mingling’ activity.

First, get students in pairs to use the question ‘What are you doing this weekend? Anything interesting?’ to build a conversation together in an ‘artificial’ way. You could ask them to work slowly, deliberately trying out some of the vague language I’ve covered, and helping each other to create a conversation.

When they’ve done this, they could get up and mingle, choosing new partners, asking the same question, and using some of the vague language they’ve already rehearsed in their replies. (Note: in an A and B pair, if A asks the question first, B can ‘return’ it by saying: ‘And you? What are you doing this weekend?’)

 

6. Let’s move on to the final part of the lesson. It’s minor area of vague language, but one which learners often find interesting. You could start by eliciting some adjectives that all end in the suffixes -ish and –y.

Ask students questions like this, and guide them towards the answers at the bottom:

1. How would you describe someone who enjoys sports?

2. How would you describe an adult who acts like a child?

3. What’s another word for ‘rich’?

4. What’s another word for ‘stupid’ in the sentence, ‘That was a stupid thing to do.’

5. How might you describe someone who is very fond of reading and studying?

Answers

1. sporty         2. childish        3. wealthy        4. foolish               5. bookish

Explain that all of these are standard adjectives that you would find in the dictionary. Your students may know some more themselves. In a way, they’re examples of vague category language, but so standardized that you might not think of them like that.

Now tell your class that these suffixes are also used quite widely in standard and vaguer ways to mean ‘approximately’ or ‘similar to’ (literally ‘in that category’). The simplest thing may be to explain or elicit the rules below around their use, and then let students practise them (in a gap-fill and ‘freer’ way, as you’ll see).

-ish: often used for numbers and times and dimensions:

I think she’s fiftyish (= around fifty years old).

Shall we meet at elevenish?

A tallish building. A deepish/widish river. A steepish hill.

(Sometimes used on its own: ‘Are you thirsty?’ ‘Ish.’)

-y: sometimes used for materials:

plasticky (= like plastic), watery, woody, oily, tinny (= unpleasant sound), softish

Or tastes/smells: sugary, salty, fruity, flowery (e.g. a perfume), garlicky

Additional usage:

-ish and –y:

Both used for colours:

reddish (or reddy), reddish-brown, bluish (or bluey), bluey-pink etc.

(Darkish = dark colour, or a bit melancholy: ‘a darkish novel’)

-ish and –y:

Both used in adjectives that people sometimes make up, choosing the suffix that sounds better:

A slowish film (= not much action). A Spanishy sort of dance (= Flamenco-style, perhaps. Spanishish would sound strange.) A blackberryish taste. (Blackberry-y would sound strange.)

 

7. Now ask your class to complete a dialogue, which is set in a restaurant.

Fill the gaps with the most appropriate word: watery, thirtyish, plasticky, vinegary, browny, woody, shortish

A: So what do you think of the place?

B: It’s OK. A bit ………………. perhaps. I mean, look at these tables.

C: But they’re wood, aren’t they?

B: I don’t think so. It’s a ………………. kind of feel, but not real wood.

A: The chef’s famous, anyway.

C: Is he? Or she?

A: He’s on TV all the time. ………………., I reckon, or younger. Swedish or Danish.

B: A ………………. guy, with black hair?

A: ……………….-black, yes.

C: Anyway, what about the beer? What do you think?

B: It’s OK. A bit weak and ……………… .

C: And the salad?

A: Sharp. ………………. . I suppose it’s the dressing.

 

Here are the answers:

B: It’s OK. A bit plasticky perhaps. I mean, look at these tables.

B: I don’t think so. It’s a woody kind of feel, but not real wood.

A: He’s on TV all the time. Thirtyish, I reckon, or younger. Swedish or Danish.

B: A shortish guy, with black hair?

A: Browny-black, yes.

B: It’s OK. A bit weak and watery.

A: Sharp. Vinegary. I suppose it’s the dressing.

 

8. You could finish (after students have practised reading the dialogue?) by asking them to describe some of these things to each other, using –y and –ish suffixes and also ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’.

an unusual drink or dish, a family member, a perfume or wine, a town centre, a painting, a room, a film or novel, a dress

 

That’s the end of the first lesson plan.

 

***

 

LESSON PLAN TWO: vague placeholders and quantities

 

In this second lesson on vague language, I’m going to look at ways of teaching the vague placeholders and quantities below.

Placeholders: thing; thingy, thingummy etc.

Quantities: (a) bit (of), a couple of, loads of 

 

Procedure:

1. Start by explaining to the whole class that you sometimes use ‘placeholder’ words like ‘thing’ in conversation instead of the actual words. Then show the class three short dialogues, and ask them to identify the placeholder words, and tell you which things they are replacing.

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

B: Not sure yet. Depends how I feel.

 

C: I saw thingy in town.

D: Who do you mean?

C: You know. Jake’s brother.

 

E: Have you got that thingummy for the pizzas?

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

 

Here are suggested answers:

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

‘Thing’ here could be a leaving party or a presentation of some sort. ‘Thingy’ would also be possible.

C: I saw thingy in town.

‘Thingy’ is clearly Jake’s brother, whose name C probably can’t remember. ‘Thing’ is less commonly used for people, except in the expression ‘You poor/brave/clever thing’.

E: Have you got that thingummy for the pizzas?

‘Thingummy’ here probably means a ‘pizza cutter’. ‘Thingamajig’, ‘thingummabob’ (spellings vary) and ‘doodah’ are also possible. These words tend to be used for practical objects or gadgets, but can also be used for people. ‘Thing’ or ‘thingy’ would be fine, too.

You could ask students for the equivalent words in their language or languages, and what the rules are, if any, for using one rather than another.

 

2. Now get students into pairs or small groups, and ask them to do the same thing with five more dialogues which introduce some new placeholders such as ‘whatsit’ and ‘whatsername’.

A: There was a thing on telly last night about monkeys in India.

B: Was it interesting?

A: Mostly, yes.

 

C: Was the film any good?

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

C: Oh yeah. I can’t remember her name.

 

E: There’s a draught in here. Where do you keep that thing?

F: What are you talking about?

E: You know. The whatsit you put under the door.

 

G: I bought a thingy alarm for the spare room.

H: A smoke alarm?

G: No. The one you’re supposed to have if there’s a boiler in the room.

H: It probably does both, actually.

 

I: Can’t you get any more channels on this thing?
J: No. It’s pretty ancient.

I: But you can get a thingamajig, can’t you, to put on top of the TV?

 

Here are the suggested answers:

A: There was a thing on telly last night about monkeys in India.

‘Thing’ here means ‘programme’ or ‘documentary’. ‘Thingy’ is possible; ‘thingummy’ etc. are less likely.

 

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

‘Whatsername’ - literally ‘What’s her name? - refers to a female actor. You could use ‘thingy’ instead. ‘Whatsisname’ is the male equivalent. ‘Whatsitsname’ is similar to ‘thingummy’.

 

E: There’s a draught in here. Where do you keep that thing?

F: What are you talking about?

E: You know. The whatsit you put under the door.

‘Thing/whatsit’ here is a ‘draught excluder’. ‘Thing’, ‘whatsitsname’, ‘thingummy’ etc. would also be possible.

 

G: I bought a thingy alarm for the spare room.

‘Thingy alarm’ is a carbon monoxide alarm. Note the use of ‘thingy’ as an adjective.

 

I: Can’t you get any more channels on this thing?

‘Thing’ here is a TV. Using ‘thing’ in this way for an object can be pejorative, suggesting that it’s old or not fit for purpose.

J: No. It’s pretty ancient.

I: But you can get a thingamajig, can’t you, to put on top of the TV?

‘Thingamajig’ here is a ‘set-top box.’

 

Students can, of course, practise reading the dialogues aloud.

Your class may well be interested in words like ‘thingummy’ but if you want to keep things useful and simple, you may want, for productive purposes, to teach ‘thingy’ for gadgets and people, and ‘thing’ for everything else (TV programmes, bits of news, events etc.) In other words, students may hear the full range of words in conversations with native speakers, but not want to use them all themselves. Anyway, there’ll be a chance for students to practise some of these words at the end of this lesson plan.

 

3. Let’s move on to look at ways of teaching this range of vague quantity phrases: (a) bit (of), a couple of, (a) load(s) of 

The best way, I think, is to get your students working with them immediately, thinking about how they would fit, in terms of meaning and grammar, into a wide range of contexts.

So ask them in groups or pairs to complete these eleven dialogues.

Choose the most appropriate word/phrase: bit, a bit, a bit of, a bit of a, a couple of, loads of, a load of

A: I’d love to go to North Wales.

B: It’s ………………. journey, isn’t it?

 

C: We’ll never get there on time. There’s ………………. traffic ahead.

D: Can’t we take a different route?

 

E: Have you got much college work to do this weekend?

F: Not really. ………………. essays, that’s all.

 

G: I don’t think he’s coming.

H: No, but let’s wait ………………. . He’s often late.

 

I: Careful. It’s years of bad luck if you walk under a ladder.

J: What ………………. nonsense!

 

K: I don’t feel like going. I’ve got a headache.

L: Take ………………. aspirin. You’ll be alright.

 

M: I asked him if he always turned up late for things.

N: That’s ………………. rude, isn’t it?

 

O: Where are you going?

P: Into the garden. I won’t be long. I’ve got ………………. phone calls to make. I just need ………………. peace and quiet.

 

Q: We’ve only got an afternoon in Dublin, I’m afraid.

R: That’s a pity. There are ………………. things to see, apparently: museums, galleries, monuments etc.

 

S: We’ve got ………………. problem, I’m afraid.

T: What is it?

S: I’ve forgotten the tickets.

 

U: What did you think of the film?

V: Not bad. There’s a great ………………. at the beginning where he tells his boss what he thinks of his job.

 

Here are the suggested answers:

B: It’s a bit of a journey, isn’t it?

[meaning ‘a fairly long journey’ but less direct in tone.]

C: We’ll never get there on time. There’s loads of traffic ahead.

[more emphatic than ‘lots of’; used with countable and uncountable nouns; ‘a load of’ is also possible; ‘a bit of’, meaning ‘quite a lot’, is possible but sounds a bit weak here.]

F: Not really. A couple of essays, that’s all. [meaning ‘a few’ or ‘two or three’.]

H: No, but let’s wait a bit. He’s often late. [meaning ‘for a short while’.]

J: What a load of nonsense! [also ‘a load of rubbish’.]

L: Take a couple of aspirin. You’ll be alright. [or ‘aspirins’]

N: That’s a bit rude, isn’t it? [often meaning ‘more than a little rude’ but less direct]

P: 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’ used here with an uncountable noun]

R: That’s a pity. There are loads of things to see, apparently: museums, galleries, monuments etc. [‘a load of things’ is also possible]

S: We’ve got a bit of a problem, I’m afraid.  [‘a bit of a problem’ often means ‘a fairly big problem’]

V: Not bad. There’s a great bit at the beginning where he tells his boss what he thinks of his job.

 

4. Once you’ve gone through all the answers, students can practise reading the dialogues. But before they do that, draw their attention to the two meanings of ‘bit’:

1. a little piece/a small amount:

let’s wait a bit, a bit of peace and quiet, a great bit in the film

2. sometimes a less direct way of saying ‘quite a lot/fairly big’ (particularly before singular, countable nouns and adjectives):

a bit of a journey, a bit rude, a bit of a problem

 

5. Now might be the time to get students to create their own conversations in pairs or small groups, using all of the language you’ve covered in this lesson. A possible scenario is for them to imagine that they’re students sharing a flat. It’s late on Saturday afternoon and they haven’t seen each other since they finished college on Friday. So they could discuss two things. First this:

1. What they’ve done since yesterday: people they’ve seen; where they’ve been and for how long etc., e.g.:

I saw thingy in town, while I was out…

We spent a couple of hours in a café, and then…

I saw a film with whatsisname in it…

There were loads of people in the college bar…

Secondly, this:

2. What they’re going to do this evening/tomorrow: events that may be on; tidying or work to do; meals to plan; TV to watch etc., e.g.:

Shall we go to that thing in college?

We could do some tidying tomorrow. Have you seen that thingy for cleaning the windows?

We’ve got loads of pasta, if you want to cook something…

I’m a bit tired. Shall we stay in? There’s that thing on telly, isn’t there?

We could have a bit of a walk tomorrow. Get some fresh air…

I’ve got loads of college work to do…

 

OK. That’s it for these two lesson plans. I hope you find them useful.

Best Wishes,

Ken