Among linguists, the adverbial use of “sort of” elicits this type of analysis: “In the heterogenous class of subjuncts, hedges belong to the subcategory of intensifier as downtoner with compromiser function. Compromisers have only a slight lowering effect. The refer to the appropriateness conditions of an utterance, signally that they “reach out towards an assumed norm but at the same time reduce the force of the verb”” – which I sort of copped from a paper in Corpora: Pragmatics and Discourse.
Although that wall of linguistic speak might seem to be a transmission from an enemy radio broadcast of badly translated propaganda, it has some wonderful terms, especially hedge, downtoner, and compromiser. It could be a law firm; it could be a description of the Democratic Party’s leadership. But what I like about it is that it helps me put my finger on the way I use “sort of” – to me, I should say, it is always invisibly crowned with quote marks.
Sort of, as the English usage books note, is an American phrase. It is one of those phrases that cast the shadow of the audience, the interlocutor, on the speech act of the locutor. And why that shadow is cast, and how it is reflected in speech, fascinates me.
I edit a lot of academic writing. It has in fact been my bread and butter, this editing. And after having edited everything from the analysis of the problems of the collective electrical usage of computers to the theology of Western musical compositions, I have a certain instinct for classroom induced habits, one of which is surely the hedge. Academics are great hedgers. They incorporate the objections that they envision – usually coming out of some dream hydra of dissertation advisor and that English teacher in the eighth grade – in the claims they make, which are, often, fatally marked with the withdrawing gesture.
Every text contains sacrifices to the potentially hostile reader. This text I am writing is full of readerly ghosts. Grafitti itself bears in its invective and obscenity a hedging moment. I think, therefore I hedge would be a reasonable observation about homo sapiens and language. Sort of…
“Sort of” is the type of thing that usage books call “informal”. Formally hedging is done on a different scale, in a different tone, as it were. In formal writing, the orchestration of subjuncts is done with the string section, whereas informally it is done with the kazoo and harmonica. One of the deep pleasures of Henry James is to see his sentences struggle, with marmoreal patience, with his hedges towards some observation that accrues, through its delay and diffraction, the shock of some awful, sexually lit scene. Few writers can match the hedge master here. Sort of is not, however, in the Jamesian vocabulary. Rather, sort of conjures up teen speech, even if it is proferred by some older adult tongue. Myself, I use it when I feel uncomfortable about the belief I am representing – uncomfortable mostly with what might be assumed about the reason I believe it. All the guilts are behind such lapses into the child’s admission, in the hedging instance, of some wrong committed, some folly vaguely remembered, some unbelievable association between oneself and some shameful act. We hedge because we want to be bold, and we want to be pardoned, in the same instance.
The desires are in conflict, of course. “Sort of” is an example of what Freud called “condensation” in the dreamwork – a moment in which a number of ideas, some of them conflicting, determine, or overdetermine, a dream representation. This produces, on the conscious level, some anxiety. Whenever I read, hear, or use “sort of”, that anxiety, lightly, lightly, is produced. It drops like a pin, it doesn’t seem to make a sound at all, but I hear a distant plink. And this is sometimes, in fact, very often, the reason I use it: I sort of like that distant plink, that needle dropped. I sort of want it.