How and Why We Sugarcoat Our Speech

An advanced student and I recently explored ways Americans soften their spoken speech. In the world of ESL, there’s a good amount of material on hedging devices for academic writing, but it’s been an interesting challenge to see how much of it can apply to conversation. The goal in any exchange is not just to speak correctly, but also to speak appropriately, right? This challenges us to go beyond levels of formality.  Speaking appropriately is more than knowing when to use a first name and when to use a title, when to use more academic words, and when to use idioms. Our understanding of the listener’s sensitivity is also tested. Do we know when to speak plainly and when to sugarcoat our opinions, our criticism, and our requests? How much “sugar” is needed? How do we know if we’re coming across as too blunt or forceful?

I believe an important speaking skill is developing a range of tones; one needs the ability to scale up and down between direct, concise speech and polite, softened speech. Different situations call for different amounts of sugarcoating. One might remind a family member, “The trash is full. It’s your turn to take out the trash.” But a coworker’s request might sound more like this: “Do you think you might have time to look this over?” How those statements come out matters as well. Do you picture each speaker using a different manner? I do. The first is said directly and with falling intonation. There might not even be eye contact with the listener. The second starts at a higher pitch and also uses rising intonation. The speaker would likely have raised eyebrows and an apologetic look.

My student and I discussed a list of mannerisms for sounding less forceful. They include:
– using a higher pitch
– not relying too heavily on falling intonation
– smiling and making sure the smile extends to the eyes

We noted tendencies such as:
– expressing more gratitude (It would be really great if you… That would be a big help.)
– including apologies for small inconveniences (…if you don’t mind. Sorry to trouble you, but…)
– including some positive with the negative (It’s really good that…, but)
– using more questions for requests and feedback (Would you mind…? Do you think you could try…?)
– using inclusive language like ‘we’ when issuing commands (Let’s try to… I think we all need to…)

Use of hedges or vague words also comes into play. There are a number of helpful lists online if you search for hedging devices. Some of the language is more limited to writing, though. I’ve begun to note words and phrases more common in speaking:

Sentence starters: I (kind of) think , I guess, I (just) feel, I get the feeling that, I (sort of) got the impression that, I suppose, It (kind of) seems, It looks like
Question starters: I was wondering if, Do you think, Do you suppose, Why don’t you/I
Modal verbs to express uncertainty: might, may, can, could, would
– Words expressing possibility: possibly, maybe, perhaps, probably
– Words expressing degree: quite, not quite, not really, rather, just, a little, (just) a bit, a tad (too), to some extent, not entirely, not completely, not exactly, somewhat
– Words expressing frequency: tend to, sometimes, at times

If you’d like two short tasks to target this kind of language, please check out my Softening Language in English_handout.

Photo credit: Waffle, Heart, Waffles, Icing, Sugar by congerdesign. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dr. Sanjivanee Kotibhaskar says:

    I think It’s an useful article. Thanks

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