Abstract: Vagueness in language generally takes on negative connotations. Vagueness in reference is often stigmatized because it is seen as a deviation from precision and clarity and is associated with vagueness in thinking. Traditional approaches to reference assignment generally assume that the communication is successful if the addressee can uniquely identify each entity that the speaker refers to. Although this may be the case in some speech events and for some discourse entities, there are nevertheless cases when a vague characterization may not only be sufficient, but also preferable. Applying a theoretical framework that blends elements of conversation analysis, politeness theory (Brown and Levinson 1987) and relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1995), this paper demonstrates that vague expressions used in assigning events and experiences to conceptual categories rarely trigger detectable misunderstanding. In some contexts, vague expressions can be more effective than the explicit ones in conveying the intended meaning. Their success depends on the exploitation of common ground in managing conversational implicature. The analysis is based on a corpus of naturally occurring conversations in Romanian recorded and transcribed within the framework of conversation analysis.
Key words: relevance; vagueness; implicature; general extenders; downtoners; placeholder words; common ground; positive politeness.