How to Be Vague When Speaking English

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“If you can’t be kind, at least be vague”. 
C.S. Lewis

You’re probably asking yourselves why I’m writing an article about being vague, Isn’t the purpose of the Real Life English blog to teach English so you can speak very informatively and specifically? Very true, but being vague is an important part of spoken English, we use this every day. Have you ever been in a situation where you can’t remember the exact time something happened, what a person said or maybe what the person looked like? Being vague in these situations can really save you when you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about or when someone asked for advice but you don’t want to hurt their feelings.

More or Less  Vs  Kind of / Sort of

This is the most common vague expression used by BRAZILIANS. More or less is used in English for the same function but is not used so often. I always hear people using this before adjectives eg.  She is more or less married, He is more or less fat. Although this makes sense in English and everyone will understand you, it is not common for native speakers to say this.

Before adjectives I would use either kind of or sort of:
Your accent sounds kind of British, I’m sort of unemployed right now, That guy was kind of rude.
We often use these for responses as well: “Hey Chad, do you like Funk music?” “kind of”.

Like I said we can use the expression “more or less” in English but it’s not as common as in Portuguese and Brazilians tend to abuse the use of it.

Adjective + ish

Similar to More or Less the ISH suffix is used with adjectives. This is used mainly for describing people’s characteristics, colors and time. That’s right people, time! This little expression is going to save a lot of you out there with your “tempo Brasileiro”. When we use the ISH suffix we’re indicating an estimation. With time I can say I will get there at Nine O’clock-ish.  Adding the –ish is suggesting to the person that I’m just estimating the time. We can do this with any time and using O’clock is not necessary, 1ish/2ish/5.30ish etc.  So Brazilians if you want a good excuse for you stereotypical punctuality this one could really help you out. One time I went to a friend’s party which started at 9p.m, so what time did I get there? 9.15 thinking the party had already started only to find my friend hadn’t even arrived yet, and it was at his house!

-Ish with color and personal characteristics is also really useful for being vague when describing people and things. If I wanted to describe a friend with red hair but it’s not exactly red I could say he had reddish hair. The same situation with tall or fat, He’s tallish or fattish. So my friend is tall and fat but he’s neither a giant nor a Sumo wrestler. Think about trying to describe someone you can’t really remember, “yeah, I remember that guy, he’s kind of shortish/tallish and has lightish/darkish hair”, that could be anyone. This funny commercial shows you how the ISH suffix could be used to your advantage. Try it out one day, it might just work.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5up4PrAbbE


About / Or So

Used with numbers and time references ABOUT and/or SO are also used to describe an estimation/approximation.

ABOUT is always used before the number or time: I will get there at about 2.30, there will be about 100 people at the next happy hour, I have about 20 cousins, He’s about 2metres tall.

OR SO is always used after a number or time reference: I’m going to Australia for 3 weeks or so, I’ve been in line for 2 hours or so.

I will never forget my last day of work in Australia when my boss asked me how long I was going to stay in Brazil and I responded, “I don’t know 6 months or so”. Five years later I’m still here. Being vague saves me form a guilt trip once again.

Whatchmacallit / Thingymajig

Relax, I haven’t started writing in Russian these are slang expressions we use when we don’t know the name of something. When I arrived here in Belo Horizonte I was surprised how many people were interested in trains (trem) and people talked a lot about business (negócio) only later to discover that these were colloquial words used to substitute the actual word in Portuguese. For me as a Portuguese learner it was like finding a gold mine when I discovered this. I didn’t have to worry about my vocabulary anymore because I would just call everything a “train” or “business”.

Whatchamacallit and thingymajig are substitutes for objects, events, food whatever. Can you pass me that thingymajig to open this bottle of wine (a bottle opener), Did you go to the bob’s whatchamacallit last night? graduation, birthday party, funeral who knows.
So as I tell my students we can use this to help us out when we’re not sure of the name of something, but don’t use this as a crutch for your vocabulary, always look up the right word later.

This video below is a commercial for an old chocolate bar called a whatchamacallit bar, see if you can understand the word play used in the advertisement.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3QohQuKcDY

Blah Blah Blah

This one is the same in Portuguese I think. We say blah blah blah to avoid having to say the boring information of the story or to imitate someone you find annoying.

“His girlfriend is always telling him what to do, she’s like blah blah blah do this, so that”.­­

Sometimes I swear when I’m talking to students about a boring topic in class all they can hear is BLAH BLAH BLAH.


Other Expressions

Other ways of being vague are to just literally express it when starting your phrase:

It’s difficult to say, but I think I’ll get there at around 10 p.m.
I’m not too sure, but I guess he’s British by his accent.

So on a final note I hope I haven’t persuaded you all that being vague is a good thing, but I’m sure you’ve realized how it can sometimes be very beneficial when you are uncertain of specific details. If you guys have any other cool ways of being vague in English, or some expression in Portuguese that translates well please feel free to post it below or on our face book community page.

So long Real Life English and I guess you’ll hear from me in about a week or so or maybe I’ll see you at the thingymajig.

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  • Very nice, Chad!! My friend had told me about the Whatchmacallit / Thingymajig. I had completely forgotten about it.
    Trem is only used in Minas, maybe some other states. It’s considered pretty hick. You may know that by now.
    In Rio people, generally young people, used “parada” or “paradinha” all the time. “Pega essa paradinha que tá em cima da mesa pra mim”. Before “parada” there were “breguete”, which is a very funny word to me.

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