Winnie Cheng, Anne O’Keeffe

Research output: Chapter in book / Conference proceedingChapter in an edited book (as author)Academic researchpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Introduction Vague language (VL) (Kempson 1977) is a natural and an integral part of everyday discourse (Carter and McCarthy 2006), often viewed as similar to uncertainty (Stubbs 1996), and discussed in relation to hedging, generality, ambiguity, ambivalence, and fuzziness (Chafe 1982, Franken 1997, He 2000, Zhang 1998). VL can also be ‘underspecifying’, which is common in conversation (Rühlemann 2007: 75). Conversational text need not be self-contained and self-explanatory because conversationalists can rely on rich non-linguistic resources of context (see also Channell 1994, Leech 2000, O’Keeffe, McCarthy and Carter 2007). VL is linguistically manifested in a variety of ways, for example vague additives (including vague approximators and vague tags), vagueness by choice of words and vague quantifiers, vagueness by implicature (Channell 1994), and vague lexis, vague reference (e.g., non-anaphoric pronouns and adverbs and indefinite pronouns) (Cutting 2007). A notion tightly related to VL is reference. In the classic text on reference, Strawson (1950: 326) distinguishes between reference and denotation and links reference to contextual factors, saying that reference ‘is not something an expression does; it is something that someone can use an expression to do’. Crucially, he stresses the salience of ‘the context of an utterance’ (ibid.: 336). He defines context as ‘the time, the place, the situation, the identity of the speaker, the subjects which form the immediate focus of interest, and the personal histories of both the speaker and those he is addressing’ (ibid.: 336). Brown and Yule (1983) take Strawson’s thoughts on reference further by conceptualising what a ‘reference act’ on the part of the speaker entails for the speaker–hearer interaction. They note that the concept which interests the discourse analyst is ‘successful reference’. ‘Successful reference’, according to Brown and Yule (1983), ‘depends on the hearer’s identifying, for the purposes of understanding the current linguistic message, the speaker’s intended referent’ (ibid.: 205). With this in mind, let us consider what happens when we use vague and underspecified language in successful reference, as shown in the following example, taken from an American talk show.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCorpus Pragmatics
Subtitle of host publicationA Handbook
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139057493
ISBN (Print)9781107015043
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Vagueness'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this