What is Vague Language? Ambiguous Language?
Vague Language (aka Ambiguous Language) is
- language that is abstract, undecipherable, underdeveloped, fragmented
- a defining characteristic of weak writing and writer-based prose style.
Examples of vague language are
- generalization, overgeneralizations—a sweeping statement about a group of people, things, topic.
- an excessive number of non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad, which give an audience only a superficial and general sense of emotion or description.
- use of empty words, such as sort of, kind of, and generally without further explanation.
Vague Language may also be called
- ambiguous language.
- underdeveloped language
- writer-based or developmental language
Related Concepts: Concrete Language, Sensory Language; Description; Given to New Contract; Reader-Based Prose Style; Register; Writer-Based Prose
Why Does Vague Language Matter?
Vagueness undermines interpretation.
Readers, listeners, users . . . will not tolerate vagueness. Teachers in school settings as well as workers in workplace settings abhor vagueness.
Vagueness is sludge, static, interference. It’s a waste of time, a waste of one’s life. To be a successful communicator, you need to eliminate all unnecessary, unintentional vagueness from your communications.
The bottom line is that people don’t like to be talked at. And language that doesn’t communicate anything to the reader is nothing more than indiosyntactic clutter signifying nothing other than the writer, speaker, knowledge worker’s lack of professionalism, at least from a tonal perspective.
And when readers, listeners, users . . . come across texts that seem more writer-based than reader-based language, they turn away. The look for something else, something more appealing.
How Can I Avoid Vague Language?
It can be hard to tell if your writing includes vagueness. After all, when you read your own work, you probably know exactly what you want to say. That can lead you to overlook soft spots (see Critique).
Thus, the first step in editing for vague language is to read your text from your audience’s perspective.
As you read through your document on a word-by-word level, question
- Have I used any words that need to be “unpacked,” words that mean a lot to me that readers may not understand without additional clarifications?
- Have I appealed to the five senses when possible?
- Have I used the first-person voice as opposed to the passive voice, when appropriate?
- Have I defined terms and concepts the reader may not understand?
- Have I provided specific examples to support my claims?
- Have I provided evidence and cited the evidence as required by my readers?
Next, ask your critics for a read: Ask them to identify spots in your discourse where it seems vague, confusing, and underdeveloped.
- Graham, Paul. How to Write Usefully
- Vagueness. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.