Has vague language become vogue?

So are we baby boomers the last generation to write and speak proper English? Like, are we? BoomerCafé publisher and co-founder David Henderson bemoans the way grammar in America has taken such a steep dive into murkiness. It has dropped to new lows from the high standards he learned back in Mrs. Roth’s high school English class … new lows that are practiced at the highest levels.

It wasn’t too long ago that the slang known as “valley girl speak” was the brunt of jokes. There was even a 1990s movie – “Clueless” – that poked fun at “valspeak.”

Valspeak uses the words “like” and “so” as a hedge at the start of sentences. “So, like, he said … and, then, like, she said” is common in the fad. In valspeak, the word, “so,” is frequently used so often to start many sentences that it becomes distracting.


Statements spoken in valspeak end with a rising intonation – a dramatic affectation – as if asking a question or suggesting the person speaking is uncertain of what they are saying.

Valspeak has always seemed an obtuse and, well, clueless or dummied-down style of discourse except for the fact that it has crept across America to become a common dialect lexicon. Today, it’s everywhere, from news discussions on NewsHour, CNN and Fox to the White House, State Department and Pentagon.

David Henderson

David Henderson

We hear reporters use valspeak to paraphrase in their own words what they surmise to have been testimony in Congress or conversations among government leaders they want to share … “like, the senator said … and then, like the general responded.”

President Obama epitomizes a form of valspeak when he addresses leaders of foreign governments as “you guys” or his frequent jock-talk way of beginning a statement with “Hey, look, like, ya-know what I mean …” No, sir, I don’t know what you mean. Please tell me.

Whether it’s an attempt to be viewed by others as cool or hip or macho or something else, many Americans have adapted this casual manner of speaking that replaces clarity with vague jargon.

In addressing the nation recently about the U.S. initiative to combat the rapidly expanding ISIS terrorist threat in the Middle East, President Obama used the phrase “take out” or a variation of it three times. “We took out Osama bin Laden,” he has often said. Why not just say, “we tracked down and killed bin Laden.” That’s clear, that’s what the U.S. did. “Took out” is vague.

I guess how the rest of us butcher language doesn’t matter as much as the President. How is his frequent use of jargon interpreted abroad? Do people in other countries understand what he is trying to say by using jargon rather than clarity? Or, are some left to think that the U.S. “took out” bin Laden to get Chinese.

At least he didn’t say, “ramp up.” Like, totally …

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  1. I couldn’t agree more; the constant ‘dumbification’ of the English language is both fascinating and horrifying. It used to be that people who spoke like that were considered “common,” and certainly not “trendy.” Add to that the fact that Webster’s Dictionary now has officially claimed words such as “Woot!” sounds like the death of language as we know it.

  2. I abhor how much “you know” has replaced “ah” as the pause in speech. I recall years ago when I was in a Toastmaster program, there was always an “ah” counter for every talk. At the end of your speech, he/she told you how many “ah” pauses you used. I’d hate to be the “you know” counter on TV today. Most of the talking heads drop it in all the time. You don’t hear David McCullough, George Will, David Brooks, or Doris Kearns Goodwin doing that. They actually THINK about what they’re saying. You know what I mean?

  3. Thank you David. This is, in my opinion, not just a nuisance and something to be annoyed about, but rather we should be concerned as it reflects a sloppiness in our speech that I would submit reflects how we think these days.

    1. Eric,

      I wish I knew the root cause of such intentionally vague language use. I think it’s more than sloppy. It strikes me that people are either not sure of what they are saying (example – watch PBS NewsHour any weekday evening) or they want to appear to be macho, laid-back or pretentious or they just don’t know any better.

      I am just constantly astonished at the President’s use of such locker room speech patterns because he should know better. Then, we hear his speech patterns influence those staff members around him … and it fits them like a cheap suit.

      But, when I hear a top official at the Pentagon or White House or State Department or major corporation start a statement with, “Hey, look, ya know …,” I am convinced that whatever comes next is a hedge on the truth or they are making it up.

      Thanks for commenting.


  4. As a former English teacher, I’d like to know what is “proper” English? Language isn’t static. It’s constantly changing and evolving, absorbing words from other countries and languages as well as adapting to contemporary culture. Shakespeare wrote for the common man and his plays were full of slang that the upper class wouldn’t have been caught dead using. Same with Chaucer. I remember my mother making this same argument about how I and my friends talked back in high school. The phrase she hated was “far out.” Her parents probably complained about the same thing, and so on throughout the centuries. Language is about communication, not a contest about how proper we can be while speaking it. If we want to remain relevant and able to pass on our years of wisdom to the younger generations, maybe we should learn how to talk with them and not just expect them to relate to us with language that in their eyes is, quite frankly, becoming archaic. In 1901, G. K. Chesterton wrote “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.” I mean — like, really — ya know, it’s all good!

    1. Dear Leslie,

      You raise a good point. No question but that I use the phase “proper language”when someone is trying to explain something yet falls into a pit of vague and irrelevant jargon. When a U.S. State Department stands at a podium, for example, to explain U.S. policy and says, “hey, well, ya know,” I want someone in the audience to respond, “no, we don’t know … explain it.”

      Willy the Shake (jargon) invented lots of jargon but … we knew what he was talking about. Not so today in many instances. Popular valley speak and jargon is used these days, I believe, to fill time when people are trying to think of something lucid to say. In such case, I’d prefer they just remain silent.

      I don’t agree that it is all good. What we hear today leads to too many understandings, I believe. And, we seem to be awash in misunderstandings in this country already.


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