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I just think I'm absolutely sorta sorry

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The end of last year saw the release of a new Chrome app called “Just not sorry”. Designed largely with women in mind, its purpose is to seek out any hint of weak and powerless language in emails. Like a grammar or spell checker, it highlights for correction such hedging expressions as just, sorry, actually, sort of, I think and so on.

Information (in the form of a quote from a consultant or life coach) then pops up over the offending phrase to explain its place on the hit list: “‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the justs” (Tara Sophia Mohr); “Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership” (Sylvia Ann Hewlett).

In the spirit of smiling, frowning, winking, crying emoji and other graphic devices, it seems curious that there’s now an app to remove phrases in writing that attempt to make up for the lack of expressive devices available to us in speech.In fact, there’s so much that’s disturbing and flawed about this app, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately I don’t have to, since writers on the net have already done a good job exposing the wrong-headedness behind it. Just for starters:

The one-size fits all approach to these linguistic features

(these phrases have an array of different functions and a complex effect on the utterances in which they occur)

The assumption that they are somehow problematic

(these are key players in the production of social harmony — without them messages can come across more brusquely than intended)

The view that women overuse these features

(perhaps men don’t use them enough)

Take one of the phrases on the hit list — I think. Sure, I think is one of those typical hedging expressions used in informal contexts to reduce the force of an utterance — often it boils down to minimizing the distance between people and creating friendliness. Do you want a message like I think you should just go ahead and do it to be rendered as Do it. Undoubtedly there are contexts where such directness is warranted. But there are also good reasons for hedging routines — and besides, they can be iron fists in velvet gloves.

I searched my own emails for some of the self-demeaning trigger words and found there was no shortage. Here’s one I sent a couple of days ago:

Apologies (again!). I actually dug this information out earlier for you. And forgot to send it! The book has been all-consuming (but I think it’s on track to leave Monday).  Here are the references — just hope they’re not too late.

OK, I probably did overdo the “shrinkers” (as Tara Mohr describes them) — but I didn’t send the information when I promised and were I to remove my lubricating shrinkers, I’d feel pretty wretched. Experience has also taught me that a critical comment on students’ work is best softened with a well-placed humiliative — I maybe don’t understand properly, but ...

In fact it’s probably this last context that accounts for one rather curious aspect of these hedges and that is that they often develop out of boosting expressions. Shrinkers grow out of expanders. Take another example from the hit list.

Just has shifted from the meaning ‘equitable, rightful’ (e.g. a just person) to ‘exactly, precisely’ (e.g. Just how to you propose to do this? / He’s just brilliant) to  ‘only, merely, barely’ (e.g. He’s just a linguist / It’s just a little dirty). Of course, as the examples show, just can still be used in all these different ways. Hedges are frequently contranyms (words that are their own opposites). Another case in point is quite — out of the earlier meaning ‘clear, free’ emerged quite the booster with the meaning ‘exactly, precisely, absolutely’ (e.g. I think it’s quite superb). The intensifier then weakened to ‘somewhat, fairly’ (e.g. It’s quite good really). Quite is now also a contranym  —sometimes it’s not even clear whether the person intended quite ‘to the utmost degree’, or quite as in ‘a little’.

Words like just and quite show the perennial turnover of intensifiers — a change undoubtedly driven by our constant need for new forceful expressions and our incurable tendency to overstate (as I’ve just done!). But the shift from ‘absolutely positive’ to ‘negative’ can also be explained in terms of another social force and that is politeness. Most social interaction operates with the idea of harmony in mind, with a preference for agreement or at least non-hostile interaction. Criticism is a threatening act, and so we might try to minimize the threat by making a positive evaluation first, then following it with a negative one; it’s quite good, but ........ Words occurring side by side can influence each other semantically. By associating with the following negative, these little intensifiers invert their original sense and we see a shift from ‘very, no less than, absolutely’ to ‘not very, no more than, merely’.


Some of you might recall the rather irritating little pop-up Microsoft Office “Assistant” Clippit (or Clippy), an animated paperclip who would “help” you write your letters — and who not surprisingly was eventually removed. I suspect once the novelty wears off, the Just Not Sorry app will suffer a similar fate.

Kate Burridge for Lingofile

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).