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Rubrica di Zach McLaughlin

Softening expressions in English

Jul 12, 2022

In my last column, I described the future of AI technology as “a little scary”. To be honest, it’s quite scary, but it is common practice in English to use certain words to “soften” expressions to make them sound less extreme or direct. Sometimes we’re just trying to be polite, and sometimes we may be worried about what people think of us and our opinions. Today, I’d like to take a look at some common ways to soften what you say.

Sort of and kind of are two informal ways to soften an adjective, adverb, or verb. For example, you could say…

  • AI is sort of scary. (+adjective)
  • It’s developing kind of quickly. (+adverb)
  • I kind of dislike the direction that we’re heading in. (+verb)

Sort of and kind of are interchangeable (they have the same meaning and are used in the same way). Note that when speaking naturally, sort of sounds like sorta and kind of sounds like kinda

Another way to soften an adjective or adverb is by using a little, a little bit, or a bit. For example, you could say…

  • It’s a little chilly today. (+adjective)
  • I got to work a bit late. (+adverb)

Notice how “a bit late” sounds much better than just “late”, regardless of how late the person is! And “a little chilly” sounds more like a neutral comment than a complaint. 

The last word that I’d like to mention today is perhaps the most common. English speakers often use just with verbs to soften or “minimize” their statements and also requests in order to sound more polite. For example, you could say…   

  • I just wanted to let you know that we’re going to be a bit late.
  • I’m just a little curious.
  • I’m just calling to book an appointment.
  • I was just wondering what time is good for you.

Notice how just is combined with a bit and a little in the first two examples to make them even softer/more polite. Just should be placed before a verb (as in the first example) unless it’s a “be” verb (as in the second example), or between an auxiliary and a main verb (as in the last two examples). Just is extremely common in English - in fact, it’s one of the 100 most common English words - so try to listen and notice how English speakers use it and introduce it into your own speaking when possible.

Finally, keep an eye out for other softening and “hedging” expressions in English. Although English does not have as much formality as some other languages, like Japanese or Korean, there are still several ways to be polite when speaking and writing. I hope this will help you to soften your expressions in English!


This column was published by the author in their personal capacity.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Cafetalk.

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