Hedges and vague language

In business language, there are two common ways to perform understatements: hedges (or mitigators) and vague language. Hedges, such as the English sort of, kind of, somehow, you know, help to moderate the directness of an utterance and are tactically deployed in order to mitigate the face-threatening potential of business meetings (Martin 2005: 249; Handford 2010: 151). In particular, they serve to soften the illocutionary forces of requests or direct questions, in that they reduce the precision of an utterance (Alemi and Razzaghi 2013: 118). For example, a hedge like I think can serve different aims, such as summarizing, clarifying, responding, disagreeing etc. (Handford 2010: 168). By comparing negotiations among Swedes and among Spaniards, Fant (1992: 143-144) found out that the latter scarcely resort to hedges, while Swedes make ample use of them. In the Spanish dialogues, the use of mitigating expressions, such as por ejemplo ‘for instance’, was concentrated in face- threatening speech-acts, such as requests, proposals, and criticisms. Hedges thus belong to the strategies of politeness.

In English, vague language includes vague nouns, such as thing(s), stuff; approximators such as about; and clause-final markers, such as or whatever, and so forth. In the expression maybe he [the seller] can do something, the words maybe

and something convey an understating of the buyer’s expectations more effectively than the corresponding non-vague expression give me a good offer would do (Charles 1996: 26). Vagueness markers are used with particular frequency in noncontractually bound external meetings, probably as a tactic to create an impression of convergence between company representatives (Handford 2010:179). This would also explain why hedges can cluster with vague language, especially towards the end of negotiations, thus reflecting “a practice of finishing such meetings on a collaborative note, through convergence and the downplaying of any impositions and evaluations” (Handford 2010:170).

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