Q: It seems to me that the unnecessary use of “sort of” has become ubiquitous. I’m not talking about saying something is “a sort of iPod,” which is another way of saying it’s like an iPod. I mean a sentence such as this: “It’s time to, sort of, fill up our car.” Why on earth would “sort of” be used like that?
A: I agree with you that the “sort of” in your second example is unnecessary. It’s similar to “you know,” “I mean,” “um,” and other superfluous words, phrases, and grunts that litter our speech. They’re sometimes called “fillers,” sometimes “verbal tics,” and they can become terrible habits once they get hold of you.
I’m one of the people who struggle not to say “you know” in every other sentence. I do my best to avoid it when I’m on WNYC, but once in a while I let loose a “you know” and get angry email in response! If you’d like to read more about these other verbal tics, check out my Sept. 7, 2006, blog item.
As for the superfluous “sort of,” A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge, describes it this way: in some people’s speech merely a verbal tic or hiccup, a “noise to keep the lines open,” with no more meaning than “er … um … er.”
The phrase “sort of” has been used since the 1500s to mean “kind of” or “type of” or “variety of” – the most common ways we use it today. Here’s an example from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671):
Have they not Sword-players, and ev’ry sort
Of Gymnic Artists, Wrestlers, Riders, Runners,
Juglers and Dancers, Antics, Mummers, Mimics,
But they must pick me out with shackles tir’d,
And over-labour’d at thir publick Mill,
To make them sport with blind activity?
The expression has been used since the late 18th century to mean imperfectly or somewhat or to express “hesitance, diffidence, or the like, on the speaker’s part,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s a diffident example from Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903): “I’ll sort of borrow the money from my dad until I get on my own feet.”
Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.