An important part of academic argumentation is not what you say, but how you say it. It’s one thing to make a bold claim, and another to “soften” it by adding expressions like or something like that, more or less, or in a way. These recurring chunks aren’t merely filler – they convey important interactive information. Vague expressions, or VEs, “express the speaker’s uncertainty or personal attitude towards the proposition and indicate for example solidarity” (Metsä-Ketelä 2012: 264).
Earlier research has expressed concern about non-native speakers’ learning and use of vague expressions, with the danger of sounding “blunt” or “pedantic” if these VEs are underused. In a recent paper by ELFA project member Maria Metsä-Ketelä, these concerns were investigated in the ELFA corpus of spoken academic ELF (English as a lingua franca). How are these vague chunks employed by second-language users in interaction with each other, and how do these findings compare to similar native-speaker data?
OI chunks: organising interaction
You’ll notice that vague expressions like and so on and in a sense function as units – they’re fixed chunks of language that typically don’t vary in form. From a Linear Unit Grammar (LUG) point of view, these are OI chunks (Organising Interaction) which can be used by a speaker to qualify her stance on the main content of an utterance. As Maria points out, the vague expressions in her study serve to intentionally add imprecision. They also have two other important traits:
- VEs do not contribute to the propositional content of an utterance, or the message itself (the M chunks in LUG)
- VEs “are supplementary, that is, they could be omitted from the utterance without compromising its syntactic structure” (Metsä-Ketelä 2012: 265).