Vagueness (Language)

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Philosopher Bertrand Russell said that "Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize until you try to make it precise" ("The Philosophy of Logical Atomism," 1918). (Joanna Cepuchowicz/EyeEm/Getty Images)

In speech or writing, vagueness is the imprecise or unclear use of language. Contrast with clarity and specificity. Adjective: vague.

Although vagueness often occurs unintentionally, it may also be employed as a deliberate rhetorical strategy to avoid dealing with an issue or responding directly to a question. Macagno and Walton note that vagueness "can also be introduced for the purpose of allowing the speaker to redefine the concept he wishes to use" (Emotive Language in Argumentation, 2014).

In Vagueness as a Political Strategy (2013), Giuseppina Scotto di Carlo observes that vagueness is "a pervasive phenomenon in natural language, as it seems to be expressed through nearly all linguistic categories." In short, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Vagueness is an essential feature of the language." 

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Etymology

From the Latin, "wandering"

Examples and Observations

  • "Use details. Don't be vague."
    (Adrienne Dowhan et al., Essays That Will Get You into College, 3rd ed. Barron's, 2009
  • Vague Words and Phrases
    "Vagueness arises from the use of terms that are inherently vague. The cabinet minister who says,
    • My officials are monitoring this situation very closely, and I can promise that we shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the situation is resolved in a way that is fair to all the parties involved.
      should be challenged on grounds of vagueness. Despite the appearance of having promised to do something specific, the minster has not really promised to do anything at all. What are appropriate measures? They could be anything or nothing.
    • What does fair to all the parties mean? We have no clear idea. Such phrases are inherently vague and can mean almost anything. People who use them should be challenged to say more precisely what they mean."
      (Willam Hughes and Jonathan Lavery, Critical Thinking: An Introduction to the Basic Skills, 5th ed. Broadview Press, 2008)
  • Vagueness vs. Specificity
    "Vague or abstract words can create wrong or confusing meanings in your receiver's mind. They state a general idea but leave the precise meaning to the receiver's interpretation. . . . The following examples show vague or abstract words and ways to make them specific and precise:
    • many - 1,000 or 500 to 1,000
    • early - 5 a.m.
    • hot - 100 degrees Fahrenheit
    • most - 89.9 percent
    • others - business administration students
    • poor student - has a 1.6 grade point average (4.0 = A)
    • very rich - a millionaire
    • soon - 7 p.m., Tuesday
    • furniture - an oak desk
  • Notice in the preceding examples how adding a few words makes the meaning precise."
  • Varieties of Vagueness
    "One characteristic of vagueness . . . is that it is related to the degree of formality, or rather informality, of the situation; the less formal the situation the more vagueness there will be..."
  • Vagueness in Oratory
    "[T]he need in oratory of the specific example, either in place of or immediately following the general statement, cannot be too strongly urged. Generalizations alone have no persuasive value. And yet this truth is constantly overlooked by public speakers. How often do we hear the common criticism of the typically weak, impressionless address: 'Platitudes and glittering generalities.' In one of George Ade's Forty Modern Fables a man has certain stock phrases which he uniformly uses in all discussions pertaining to art, literature, and music; and the moral is, 'For parlor use, the vague generality is a life-saver.' But for the public speaker, generalizations are useless for either imparting or impressing his thought; a single concrete example has far more convincing and persuasive force."
  • Vagueness in Survey Questions
    "Vague words are very common on surveys. A word is vague when it is not obvious to a respondent what referents (e.g., instances, cases, examples) fall under the umbrella of the word's intended meaning. . . . For example, consider the question, 'How many members of your household work?' This question has several vague words, most of which would be missed by the vast majority of respondents. It could be argued that members, household, and work are all vague words. Who counts as being a member of the household?... What falls under the category of household?... What counts as someone working?... Vagueness is ubiquitous in most survey questions."
  • Ambiguity vs. Vagueness
    "The difference between ambiguity and vagueness is a matter of whether two or more meanings associated with a given phonological form are distinct (ambiguous), or united as non-distinguished subcases of a single, more general meaning (vague). A standard example of ambiguity is bank 'financial institution' vs. bank 'land at river's edge,' where the meanings are intuitively quite separate; in aunt 'father's sister' vs. aunt 'mother's sister,' however, the meanings are intuitively united into one, 'parent's sister.' Thus ambiguity corresponds to separation, and vagueness to unity, of different meanings."
  • Vagueness in Sentences and Words
    "The primary application of 'vague' is to sentences, not to words. But the vagueness of a sentence does not imply that vagueness of every constituent word. One vague word is enough. It may be essentially doubtful whether this is a red shape because it is essentially doubtful whether this is red, although beyond doubt that it is a shape. The vagueness of 'This is a red shape' does not imply the vagueness of 'This is a shape.'"

    Sources

    A. C. Krizan, Patricia Merrier, Joyce Logan, and Karen Williams, Business Communication, 8th ed. South-Western, Cengage Learning, 2011

    (Anna-Brita Stenström, Gisle Andersen, and Ingrid Kristine Hasund, Trends in Teenage Talk: Corpus Compilation, Analysis, and Findings. John Benjamins, 2002)

    Edwin Du Bois Shurter, The Rhetoric of Oratory. Macmillan, 1911

    Arthur C. Graesser, "Question Interpretation." Polling America: An Encyclopedia of Public Opinion, ed. by Samuel J. Best and Benjamin Radcliff. Greenwood Press, 2005

    David Tuggy, "Ambiguity, Polysemy, and Vagueness." Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006

    Timothy Williamson, Vagueness. Routledge, 1994

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Vagueness (Language)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/vagueness-language-1692483. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 11). Vagueness (Language). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vagueness-language-1692483 Nordquist, Richard. "Vagueness (Language)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vagueness-language-1692483 (accessed December 17, 2017).