“How do you mean?” A corpus-based approach to interactive vagueness in classroom discourse across academic discipline cultures

30 May 2024

“How do you mean?” A corpus-based approach to interactive vagueness in classroom discourse across academic discipline cultures

This paper investigates vagueness in the context of classroom discourse, adopting a cross-cultural and corpus-based perspective. In this paper, ‘culture’ is not viewed as a national construct but in terms of academic culture across different disciplines (e.g., natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities).

Vagueness is a natural part of language (e.g. Channell, 1994; Cutting, 2007; Zhang, 2011), and some linguists and philosophers (e.g. Williamson, 1994) even consider vagueness to be an intrinsic feature prevailing in language itself. However, in classroom discourse, teachers frequently overlook vagueness phenomena (Cheng and Warren 2003), and disciplinary differences are even less well understood. Accordingly, this paper examines vagueness in seminar discussions in UK universities. The study considers vagueness as a pragmatic, interactive concept, addressing both the speaker’s perspective (speaker-vagueness) and the hearer’s perspective (hearer-vagueness), and the interaction between the two.  The data used is the seminar materials in the BASE corpus (British Academic Spoken English), which comprises 432,691 word tokens in total.

Initial findings show that (1) there is a tendency for speaker- and hearer-vagueness in the BASE seminar data as a whole to exhibit very few overlaps, and (2) Speaker-vagueness is most characteristically associated with politeness, persuasion, marking the speaker’s stance, and effective use of language. The paper also addresses two further questions: Across the different disciplines of BASE, to what extent do we find variation in the frequencies, patterns and functions of vagueness? And to what extent can these patterns be connected to cultural characteristics found in those disciplinary contexts? We discuss the findings on these questions and their pedagogical implications.



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Cutting, J. (ed.). 2007. Vague Language Explored. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cutting, J. 2012. Vague language in conference abstracts. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(4), 283-293.

Cheng, W. & Warren, M. Indirectness, inexplicitness and vagueness made clearer. Pragmatics, 13(3), 381-400.

Williamson, T. (1994). Vagueness. London: Routledge.

Zhang, G. (2011). Elasticity of vague language. Intercultural Pragmatics, 8(4), 571-599.