Imprecise Noun Phrases in Conversation

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16 March, 2017

Imagine you hear a group of American teenagers talking. One teenager has received a gift, and his friends are a little jealous.

Where did you get that new video game?

Yeah! It's expensive - it costs like thirty dollars or something!

My mom got it for me.

You're lucky – she's always buying you games and stuff like that!

In today's report, we are going to learn about video games. Just joking!

In fact, we are going to teach you how Americans use certain phrases to show they are uncertain. Sometimes they use these phrases to shorten their sentences, too.

These phrases are sometimes called coordination tags.

What are coordination tags?

In conversation, Americans often use imprecise nouns. Imprecise nouns are nouns that do not represent an exact person or object.

Sometimes Americans use these imprecise nouns in phrases.

Americans use them to show that they have not identified exactly the noun they are thinking of.

Rather than listing a long series of nouns, speakers will often use one noun and then use a coordination tag to show that there are other possible nouns they could have said.

So, what do these coordination tags look like?

Three common coordination tags

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are English grammar experts. They write that there are three common coordination tags in conversation.

These include or something like that, and things like that, as well as and stuff like that.

The words like that can be optional. Sometimes speakers will say them; sometimes they will not.

#1 or something (like that)

The first common coordination tag is the phrase or something like that. Speakers generally use this phrase when the earlier noun is not exactly what the speaker meant, say Conrad and Biber.

Here's an example. Imagine you are listening to strange electronic music. A friend might tell you this:

"It sounds like a science fiction movie or something like that."

The speaker uses the coordination tag because he thinks that the noun, science fiction movie, is not quite the right noun for the situation.

The speaker is able to make a statement while expressing some uncertainty about that statement.

#2 and things (like that)

The second common coordination tag is the phrase and things like that. Americans generally use this when there are unstated nouns that could be added to the earlier noun.

Sometimes speakers will use this to move through a sentence quickly, to avoid listing all of the exact nouns.

Consider this example. Imagine you are at a college and a student is telling you about all of the majors at the school of fine arts.

"We have a master of arts in painting and things like that."

Why did the speaker say and things like that?

She used it mainly to shorten the length of her sentence without limiting its meaning too severely.

Perhaps she felt that listing every degree at the school would bore the person listening to her.

Or perhaps she does not care very much about all of the majors at the school.

Regardless of the speaker's opinion, the basic point is this: and things like that is a way to express that there is a long list of exact nouns.

#3 and stuff (like that)

The third common coordination tag is the phrase and stuff like that.

As with things like that Americans use this when there are some unstated nouns.

Sometimes speakers will use and stuff like that to refer to nouns that are objects.

For example, you might hear an American say, "The restaurant has hamburgers and hot dogs and stuff like that."

Here, the speaker is suggesting that the restaurant has common American foods -- hamburgers and hot dogs, most notably.

You will notice that the construction and stuff like that has an almost identical meaning to and things like that.

They both mean that there are unstated nouns that should be added to the earlier noun.

In conversation the phrases things like that and stuff like that are basically the same.

What can you do?

Now let's think back to the conversation from the beginning of the story.

Where did you get that new video game?

Yeah! It's expensive - it costs like thirty dollars or something!

My mom got it for me.

You're lucky – she's always buying you games and stuff like that!

You will notice the two examples of coordination tags have slightly different meanings. The first example, or something, shows that the speaker does not know the exact price of the video game. The speaker is able to express some amount of uncertainty while making a statement.

The second example, and stuff like that, shows a different meaning: the game was one of a series of gifts that the lucky teenager has received!

The coordination tags we have explored today are not only useful in everyday conversation. They can be useful in written communication such as emails or text messages to friends, too.

We do not advise using these structures in formal speaking or writing. In general, formal situations call for more exact language.

While you might say "We have a master of arts in painting and stuff like that" to a friend who visits your college, you should not say it in a speech to officials at your college.

In that setting, it would be better to say "We have a master of arts in painting and many other degrees" or "We have a master of arts in painting, drawing, and filmmaking," for example.

The next time you are watching an American film or television show, try to listen for when the speakers use coordination tags like the ones you heard in today's report.

Try to listen for other coordination tags, and ask yourself what they might mean.

In future Everyday Grammar programs, we will explore parts of speech and other stuff like that.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Brant.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

expensive – adj. costing a lot of money

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

coordination tag – n. grammar words that show that the speaker has not exactly identified the noun they are thinking of

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

imprecise – adj. not clear or exact

optional – adj. available as a choice but not required

quite – adv. exactly or precisely

uncertainty – n. something that is doubtful or unknown

construction – n. the way words in a sentence or phrase are arranged

formal – adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing