Indirectness, inexplicitness and vagueness made clearer

Winnie Cheng and Martin Warren


The ability to do indirectness, inexplicitness and vagueness is a key component in the repertoire of all competent discoursers and these are commonplace phenomena in written and spoken discourses, particularly in conversations. The study reported in the paper seeks to delineate and exemplify these three terms which are used frequently in the literature, but which are potentially confusing as they are not always unambiguously defined and consistently applied. The purpose of the study is to describe the differences between the three terms in terms of their pragmatic usage and functions, drawing upon a corpus of naturally-occurring conversational data between Hong Kong Chinese and native speakers of English. In so doing, this study underlines the widespread occurrence of these forms of language use and the ways in which participants in spoken discourse employ them to jointly construct both context and meaning.

Quick links
A browser-friendly version of this article is not yet available. View PDF
Austin, J.L
(1962) How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Bach, K
(1994) Conversational implicature. Mind and Language 9.2: 124-162. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Bertuccelli Papi, M
(1997) Implicitness. In J. Blommaert and C. Bulcaen (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics 1997. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 1-29. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Biber, D
(1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Biber, D., and E. Finegan
(1989) Drift and the evolution of English style: A history of three genres. Language 65.3: 487-517. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Brazil, D
(1995) A grammar of speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
(1997) The communicative value of intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Brown, G
(1989) Making sense: The interaction of linguistic expression and contextual information. Applied Linguistics 10.1: 97-108. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Brown, P., and S. Levinson
(1987) Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Brown, G., and G. Yule
(1983) Discourse analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Carter, R., and M. McCarthy
(1994) Language as discourse: Perspectives for language teaching. London: Longman.Google Scholar
(1997) Exploring spoken discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Channell, J
(1994) Vague language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Cheng, W., and M. Warren
(1999a) Facilitating a description of intercultural conversations: The Hong Kong Corpus of Conversational English. ICAME Journal 23: 5-20.  BoPGoogle Scholar
(1999b) Inexplicitness: What is it and should we be teaching it? Applied Linguistics 20.3: 293-315. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Crystal, D., and D. Davy
(1975) Advanced conversational English. London: Longman.Google Scholar
Dascal, M
(1983) Pragmatics and the philosophy of mind I: Thought in language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  BoP CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Dines, E.R
(1980) Variation in discourse - “and stuff like that”. Language in Society 9: 13-31. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Dubois, B.L
(1987) “Something in the order of around forty to forty-four”: Imprecise numerical expressions in biomedical slide talks. Language in Society 16: 527-541. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Ellis, R
(1985) Teacher-pupil interaction in second language development. In S. Gass and C.G. Madden (eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, pp. 66-81.Google Scholar
Gadzar, G
(1979) Pragmatics: Implicature, presupposition and logical form. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Goatly, A
(1995) Directness, indirectness and deference in the language of classroom management: Advice for teacher trainees? IRAL: International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 33.3: 267-284.Google Scholar
Graddol, D.
(1999) The decline of the native speaker. In D. Graddol and U.H. Meinhof (eds.), English in a Changing World. Aila Review13: 57-68.Google Scholar
Graddol, D., and U.H. Meinhof
(eds.) (1999)  English in a Changing World . Aila Review 13Google Scholar
Grice, H.P
(1975) Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press, pp. 44-58.Google Scholar
Halliday, M.A.K
(1994) An introduction to functional grammar. London: Edward Arnold.Google Scholar
Halliday, M.A.K., and R. Hasan
(1976) Cohesion in English. Harlow: Longman.  BoPGoogle Scholar
He, Z.R
(2000) A further study of pragmatic vagueness. Journal of Foreign Languages 125.1: 7-13.Google Scholar
Hunston, S
(2002) Corpora in applied linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crossref  MetBibGoogle Scholar
Jucker, A.H., and S. Smith
(1996) Explicit and implicit ways of enhancing common ground in conversations. Journal of Pragmatics 6.1: 1-18.  BoP CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Labrie, N., and C. Quell
(1997) Your language, my language or English? The potential language choice in communication among nationals of the European Union. World Englishes 16: 3-26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Kempson, R
(1977) Semantic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Kennedy, G
(1987) Quantification and the use of English: A case study of one aspect of the learner’s task. Applied Linguistics 8.3: 264-286. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Leech, G
(1980) Principles of pragmatics. Harlow: Longman.Google Scholar
Levinson, S
(1983) Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  BoP. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Mazzie, C.A
(1987) An experimental investigation of the determinants of implicitness in spoken and written discourse. Discourse Processes 10: 31-42. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
McCarthy, M
(1998) Spoken language and applied linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
McQuiddy, I
(1986) Some conventional aspects of indirectness in conversation. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas, Austin.
Mey, J
(2001) Pragmatics: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Miller, L
(1994) Japanese and American indirectness. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 5.1&2: 37- 55.Google Scholar
Placencia, M.E
(1995) Explicitness and ellipsis as features of conversational style in British English and Ecuadorian Spanish. IRAL 33.2: 129-141.Google Scholar
Quirk R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik
(1985) A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Harlow: Longman.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Ricento, T
(1987) Clausal ellipsis in multi-party conversation in English. Journal of Pragmatics 11: 751-775. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Riley, K
(1988) Conversational implicature and unstated meaning in professional communication. The Technical Writing Teacher XV.2: 94-104.Google Scholar
Searle, J.R
(1975) Indirect speech acts. In P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press, pp. 59-82.Google Scholar
Sew, J.W
(1997) Power pragmatics in Asian languages. Language Sciences 19.4: 357- 367. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Sigurd, B
(1988) Round numbers. Language in Society 17: 243-252. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Sinclair, J. McH
(1991) Shared knowledge. Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1991. In J.E. Alatis (ed.), Linguistics and language pedagogy: State of the art. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, pp. 489-500.Google Scholar
Sinclair, J., and D. Brazil
(1982) Teacher talk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Sperber, D., and D. Wilson
(1986)  Relevance: Communication and cognition . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [2nd edn 1995].
Stenström, A-B
(1994) An introduction to spoken interaction. London: Longman.Google Scholar
Stubbs, M
(1983) Discourse analysis: The sociolinguistic analysis of natural language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.  BoPGoogle Scholar
(1996) Text and corpus analysis. Computer-assisted studies of language and culture. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Thomas, J
(1995) Meaning in interaction. London: Longman.  BoPGoogle Scholar
van Dijk, T.A
(1979) Pragmatic connectives. Journal of Pragmatics 3.5: 447-457. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Varonis, E.M., and S.M. Gass
(1985) Non-native/non-native conversations: A model for negotiation of meaning. Applied Linguistics 6.1: 71-90. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Wierzbicka, A
(1986) Precision in vagueness: The semantics of English ‘approximatives’. Journal of Pragmatics 10: 597-613. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Wittgenstein, L
(1953) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Yule, G
(1996) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Zhang, J.Z
(1990) Ranking of indirectness in professional writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 20.3: 291-305. CrossrefGoogle Scholar