Qualifiers and Tentative Speech

Kind of, sort of, maybe, might, usually, probably, somewhat, very – the list goes on.

What do all these words have in common? They are all qualifiers – extra grammar words that pop up in sentences to alter the sentence’s meaning, by either enhancing or limiting it. For example: This megabot might work.

Qualifiers have their place in this world. Lazy writers use them as short cuts when they cannot figure out a better way of writing (eg. “kind of cold” vs. “cool breeze from the north”, “a lot of puppies” vs. “a hoard of stubby tails”). But in reality, qualifiers serve one purpose: to establish uncertainty. Outside of that, they are grammatically useless.

This is part of a speaking style known as tentative speech, qualifiers that make statements become questions. Like qualifiers, tentative speech has its own place in the world – sometimes there is uncertainty, right? (You see what I did there.) After all, you do not really know if your megabot works, but it might, so you put a small ounce of yourself into the belief that your hopes and dreams will become a reality as soon as you flip the power.

Tentative speech also serves to open up conversation, give people a chance to express their opinions, and a means of inclusion. But tentative speech doubles as the shy, intra-personal alternative to assertion. Tentative speech is a defensive (or sensitive) way of speaking. It is a means of playing nice and getting along with others, because things might work out how you want, and if they do not, you already knew that might happen, right? You cannot argue with that logic. And while nice people are awesome, tentative speech is a characteristic of people who lack confidence in themselves.

Studies have also dubbed tentative speech as stereotypical of “women’s speech.”[1] However, in a broader sense, it is characteristic of those who subconsciously feel they “lack power” or are of “lower status”[1]. Gender does not matter.
Want to know a sure-fire way to sound confident? Simple. Drop the qualifiers. Drop them from your speech. Drop them from your writing. Drop them from your presentations. Drop them from your life. I do not expect you to throw out tentative speech completely (distinct from just qualifiers here) because that still has its place in the world. And besides, your brain might explode because overthrowing a speaking style is harder than removing one or two unnecessary words [2]. Plus, chucking out tentative speech completely means you will turn yourself into an arrogant jerk. Qualifiers on the other hand, well, I will let you decide. Which sounds better? [3]

A: The megabot might work, but the thrusters are kind of off so it can be a little wonky at times.

B: The megabot will work. My primary concern is that the thrusters are sporadic, and will misfire if given uneven amounts of power. I am working to fix this.

Notes:

[1] Before you start chucking tomatoes, tentative speech is examined in gender studies. Some studies support it, largely in the realm of “women being more socially sensitive” rather than lacking confidence:
http://pwq.sagepub.com/content/35/1/129.short,
http://www.austincc.edu/colangelo/1318/woodgender.htm;
Others do not:
http://communication.ucdavis.edu/people/nap/pubs/Palomares%202009%20CR%20Women%20are%20sort%20of%20more%20tentative%20than%20men-%20arent%20they.pdf

[2] Tentative speech is also incredibly persuasive (so if you are into law or psychological manipulation, go for it) and can make people agree with you (provided they are not frustrated with indecisiveness).

[3] Disclaimer: I know nothing of megabots. I just write sci-fi and watch anime and use big words for the context of this article….