Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's Sort Of Weird How Often People Say "Sort Of"

Why do people who are trying to sound erudite keep saying "sort of" and "kind of"?  I kept hearing people speaking this way at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans yesterday. You hear it all the time on NPR, not necessarily with the reporters, but with the people calling in or being interviewed.  There's sort of this tendency for people to say "sort of" all the time.  If they really want to emphasize something, they might even say "really sort of".  Why on earth, if you're trying to sound smart, would you use filler phrases like "kind of" and "sort of"?

I think part of the answer is that these phrases aren't just filler.  They resemble other filler words, like "um" or "uh", in that people say them unconsciously.  But "sort of/kind of" seem to carry some real meaning, too.  They serve as hedge phrases, to make people sound less blunt.  In this sense, they're related to the "like" of teen-speak, which really, like, drives the grownups crazy*.  More than that, though, these phrases seem to be unconscious affectations or signals, which say "I am speaking the way thoughtful, educated people do".  "Sort of" and "kind of" serve as indicators that the speaker is part of a certain subculture (more or less the NPR-listening, college-educated, self-consciously-cultured subculture), and can speak the way their peers in that subculture do.

Which is really sort of mildly annoying to me.  I'm very attuned, for some reason, to people's unconscious badges that mark their subcultural identity.  I notice how skateboarders walk differently than hipsters, and hipsters smoke their cigarettes differently than construction workers.  But when the subculture I'm observing is one that I'm (loosely) associated with, like that bookish, NPR-listening crowd, those subcultural badges irritate me.  I'm part of that subculture that tries not to be part of a subculture (we're probably very predictable).  I know I probably wear my share of these badges, but I do think there's a good reason to notice when you're unconsciously mimicking your peers.  As soon as you start automatically speaking and dressing like a particular group of people, you run the risk of automatically thinking like them.  And if you're automatically thinking like any group of people, well, that really sort of means you're not thinking at all.  It's not that I think people should immediately cease and desist with the "kind of" and "sort of".  It's just that it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to notice it, and stop to think about what else they're doing, and thinking, without really thinking about it.

* Wikipedia says that people have been using "like" this way for a long time, but it became popular with the beatnik character Maynard G. Krebs, on the TV show Dobie Gillis in the early '60's.  Of course, we all know Shaggy said it a lot on Scooby Doo.  So, like, people that are grandparents now used to talk like this.  In fact, some of them still do.  Wikipedia also says words like "like", "um", "uh", "well", etc, are called discourse markers or discourse particles.  Apparently, linguists used to think of these things as mostly being filler, but now see them as carrying real meaning.  I think I'll look into this some more, once I find some readable sources on this stuff beyond Wikipedia.  Here's a couple of interesting ones:

Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways.  Michael Erard, New York Times

Like, what is the meaning of "like".  USA Today


  1. sorry I'm finding this 9 years later.
    I dove into your post, certain you were headed toward a "sort of" diagnosis, only to be left at the curb. Allow me to give explaining this a shot.
    You're spot on in identifying the subculture who can be heard speaking this, one which has an identical twin in Britain, where actually I'm thinking this affectation began.
    Part of signaling that you walk among a higher intellectual order is acknowledging whenever possible the truism that we live in a world where nothing is absolute, that all is so complex, relativist and deep that our or any language cannot possibly capture precisely what is trying to be said, and so this lofty realization is signaled by tossing in the occasional, “Sort of”. You’ll never hear, “His prose is Churchillian”. You’ll hear, “His prose is sort of Churchillian”.
    The Great Unwashed, meanwhile, foolishly think that when they describe a thing, they’ve nailed it.

  2. I'm finding this years later and it's such a relief to encounter another person's recognition of this phenomenon. The prevalence of 'kind of' and 'sort of' has been in the rise for decades and doesn't seem to be slowing as I write this. Your conclusions regarding the largely unconscious usage of these adverbial downtoners are spot on. It's striking to me how frequently these terms have begun to recur in the speech of practically anyone attempting to convey information in the English language, and yet how unaware of it most people seem to be. Yes, these terms have long been in use, but the way they are being used is changing. Similar to the way in which the word 'literally' is increasingly being used un-literally, 'kind of' and 'sort of' have come to be used in ways that would have previously caused probable perplexion. For instance, a professor being interviewed on NPR was heard to say that his daughter "sort of moved back to the east coast this year". That doesn't make good grammatical sense. These terms have become like verbal tics or fillers. But unlike 'um' or 'uh', they carry semantic value that is becoming more and more cloudy in context.

    1. Meanwhile, in the past 6 or 7 years America's professional class has - to the point of its resembling a fad - begun starting their sentences with, "So..."
      When I pointed this out to my administrative assistant, (she was doing it constantly) she replied, " long have you noticed this?"
      Could be the subject of a whole new thread.