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When I speak or write I tend not to speak in absolutes. I generally use phrases like "I think" or "I don't think" a lot. Further, I usually qualify my statements with words like "generally" or "usually". Funny - I'm doing this even as I write this post.

Is this simple habit, or are there studies that show this means something about my person (e.g., I'm insecure or sensitive to hurting others' feelings, etc.)? If it's a bad indicator, feel free to share anyway.


I'm not a aloud to post an answer because of my lack of reputation points, so I'll put it here because this might be helpful to someone else:

I shared this question with a friend of mine with a degree in psycholinguistics. She answered with the following:

Technically, what you're doing is "softening" your speech and using what we call a "feminine" speech style, although the research shows that it's not gender-specific:

http://www.uiowa.edu/~grpproc/crisp/crisp.1.6.html

It tends to happen when someone's trying not to be too dominant or to assert themselves over anyone else. People are most likely to use these hedges when they're with a peer or with someone who's in authority over them. You're less likely to use them when you're talking to your kids.

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    Is there a way to rewrite your question to be more crosslinguistic? (i.e. to apply to multiple langauges, not just English)? If not, then maybe this question would be better suited to English Language and Usage – acattle Sep 23 '12 at 2:53
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    Thanks, acattle - I want to be careful with such things. Embarrassingly, I accidentally posted to the English site you mention originally not knowing about this site. Once I found this site, I was about to move it here and while doing so it was closed as off-topic, a choice I agree with. It really does belong here as it is a pycholinguistic question dealing with behavior not specific to English or any other language. My examples are in English as I'm an English speaker, but people from other languages may exercise the same "softening" behavior. – firebush Sep 23 '12 at 3:23
  • well, then that answers that. – acattle Sep 23 '12 at 3:25
  • The question is clearly a valid question for this site, though it appears to have two parts: why would a person say "I think," etc., often, and how does such a tendency reflect morally on the person? The first question I hope you can get a good answer from a pragmatics expert. Basically, though, embedding a declarative clause in "I think..." makes the assertion cancellable (you can deny having asserted it), because you can later clarify that you thought wrongly. As for the second part of the question, this is not area psycholinguistics deals with, as far as I know. – user483 Sep 23 '12 at 14:21
  • My Dr. friend gently corrected me. My question is a sociolinguistics and pragmatics question, not a psycholinguistics one. – firebush Sep 24 '12 at 3:30
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IANAL. However I've thought about this myself because I use qualifiers a lot in the same manner you do. Your friend's theory is probably the most common, but I think it's completely wrong. Example: I don't have any sense of social hierarchy. I talk to my 3-year old sister the same way I talk to any adult, including the profuse panoplies of "I think" and "I dunno."

I think what those hedge words mean is precision. In particular, linguistic precision with respect to the environment. You say "I think" because you're expressing something about the real world. In that real world, you aren't 100% sure about that something, so it would be a misrepresentation of reality to imply that you are.

So I think "I think" implies both precision and a particular respect/perspective of the world, which may be two sides of the same coin.

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  • Precision doesn't seem right; do you mean perhaps mean confidence? – Mark Beadles Oct 15 '12 at 19:38
  • @MarkBeadles No, I'm definitely talking about precision, as in technical/logical accuracy. As I tried to get across in my post, not being precise would be lying about reality, which is anathema to certain kinds of people. It's a very deep and subtle thing, much more so than the social explanations, which I think are naive. – amr Oct 21 '12 at 2:24
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You can think of the language choices we make based on: a) the things we want to talk about in the world, and, b) the people we want to talk to.

It is negotiating our relationships with people that we get all kinds of pragmatic effects (awful summary - language use in context). On of the most interesting works on this kind of effect is Brown and Levinson's book on Politeness (1987). They talk about these things in terms of face - saving your own face and threatening someone elses. They argue that this accounts for a great deal of the choices like 'I think' - which is a hedging strategy to weaken your assertiveness (or in some cases, strengthen it! Language is funny like that).

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Language is acquired as a habit, albeit a much more complex than smoking or sucking your thumb. People develop different styles in speech, because as children they experiment with different ad new usages, some of which they find most comfortable, or which have the ideal cadence. You say "I think" and "usually", because you grew more accustomed to them over "I believe" or "most of the time." For me, when I starting more consistently pronouncing the "h" in "what", "when", "whither", etc., I had to force myself to make the correction; now I must correct myself when I do not.

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