The new language: Vagueness

Vagueness. That’s what Clark Whelton calls today’s spoken language in his column in City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. Whelton believes a linguistic virus is responsible, though he’s not exactly sure where it came from:

I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

I hear this kind of speech everywhere. Whelton says he noticed a change in the mid 1980s when he was hiring interns for Edward I. Koch, the mayor of New York, for whom he was a speech writer. Before 1985, applicants were “articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent.”

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Then, he says, something happened.  Young people began saying “like” all the time and using other vague, non-committal words and phrases. Their writing samples were decidedly worse. And it’s been a downward spiral ever since:

“You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.” As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.”

Whelton also noticed that “You know” replaced “Ummm . . .” and young people consistently spoke in run-on sentences. Soon they were making statements that sounded like questions:

I asked a candidate where she went to school.

“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.

“And you’re majoring in . . .”


Whelton isn’t sure where Vagueness came from or when exactly it began. One Vassar professor told him by the time today’s students arrive on campus, they’ve been “juvenilized”:

“You can hear it in the way they talk. There seems to be a reduced capacity for abstract thought.” He went on to say that immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of kids in ninth grade. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be fine with their high school teachers.”

Certainly, the use of “like” can be traced to the “Valley Girl” dialect of the 1970s. But Whelton thinks there’s more to it; that perhaps Vagueness began as “an antidote to the demands of political correctness in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas.” Or that maybe it offers people a technique for disguising their lack of education.

I say it’s also habit. If you hear lazy speech all the time, you repeat it. Like, if you, like, constantly hear “like” all the time you tend to, like, use it. You know?

(H/t: Abby S.)



  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Zo

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