Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Of Stuff and Things

Over the years of teaching English as a foreign language, I've noticed how some of my students adopt some of the throwaway words and phrases that I use unthinkingly. The two words that are adopted most are stuff and thing (though I just as easily say thingy while waving a hand to indicate that I don't know or can't remember the correct word).

I have hardly discouraged the use of such words by students, not least because they can be extremely useful as catch-alls when specific vocabulary is just out of reach and when a vague reference will suffice. This is, of course, just how native speakers use the words so it means that when adopting stuff and thing the students are adding a degree of authenticity to their speech. "I can't learn all that stuff by next week!" "I didn't bring my things with me." 

What I have noticed, however, is that individual students usually adopt just one rather than both of the words and then tend to use the one they had adopted rather indiscriminately. This can lead to those times when the adoption of a word or a phrase which mimics a native speaker can  go wrong and instead of sounding authentic goes the opposite way.

"What's all that sticky thing in your hair?"
"So, how is stuff with you these days?"

The problem is, of course, that it is easy to assume that one word describing a vague, barely-defined object or concept is much like another. Native users of any language tend to be surprisingly vague and indirect much of the time time when speaking, so adopting words that can help to guide the learner through the vagaries  of spoken dialogue are good, especially if one vague word is as good as another.

vague (a) – Indistinct, not clearly expressed or identified, of uncertain or ill-defined character or meaning. (Concise OED)

It's not true, of course. While thing and stuff are often interchangeable — "Get your stuff/things out of my room!" "We need to get some more stuff/things from the grocers. " — sometimes they are not — "The jacket was made of thin, gauzy stuff. " "She has a thing about flying. "  This is partly because many of the expressions using either stuff or thing have become fairly standard phrases and cannot, therefore, be swapped about:

  • Stuff: Now get out there and do your stuff / Have a drink but I'd avoid the hard stuff if I were you.
  • Thing: You can't be all things to all people. / She has a thing about flying.

But an overriding consideration is the fact that stuff is uncountable and thing is countable. Thus it might appear that we would need to know whether the vocabulary we have forgotten or don't wish to mention by name is countable or uncountable itself before we know which vague substitute to use. But a cursory look at this problem, however, indicates that we don't need to be strict about this and that when in vague mode about the thing or stuff we are are discussing we can be equally vague about how countable it is.

On the other hand, there are some slightly grey areas, including when we are referring to physical objects: By the time we got to the sale, all the good stuff was gone would probably be the expression of choice by a native speaker, but By the time we got to the sale, all the good things were gone would be perfectly acceptable, the modification of the verb form being obligatory. Equally The kitchen stuff goes in this box might become The kitchen things go in this box and I don't think too many people would object, though I wonder how many would, like me, assume that the first sentence referred to food or similar while the second referred to kitchen utensils or the like?

However, when we are talking about the basic material for making something, we tend to use stuff in preference: The stuff they use to make pasta is durum wheat or We've run out of salad stuff or I have no idea what stuff they used to make that structure. This is probably because most basic materials tend to be uncountable objects — wood, metal, sand, flour, water etc. The same goes for talking about qualities, where, again, stuff is favoured She has the right stuff for that job and for negative qualities in particular There's a lot of bad stuff going on in our office.

Using thing tends to be a little less risky, and we primarily use it as a substitute word when talking about:

  • Facts. The main thing to remember is to keep smiling at all costs.
  • Action. Telling her you knew how to do the job was a stupid thing to do.
  • Something not liked: What's that thing doing on my desk?
  • In general. How are things at school?  Things are going really well. (Though you would be unlikely to hear the latter as an answer to the former, unless the speaker was being ironic).

We are mainly referring to spoken English here, or possibly written dialogue. Possible slips of the kind hinted at above, especially if this kind of informal speech is being attempted by a learner, are to be expected and are easy to ignore as the meaning is nearly always clear. I always make a point of ensuring that my stuff- and thing- using students understand that one is uncountable and that one isn't, but mainly so that they use the correct form of the verb with it — substituting thing for stuff or vice versa is fine for me as long as the verb agrees!  In fact, using stuff or thing to deliberately substitute named objects, materials or qualities is quite a good activity to practice the whole concept of countable and uncountable anyway.

In the following sentences substitute stuff or thing as appropriate for the word(s) in italics:
I gave her a little book for her birthday.
Can you get me some of that special Norwegian moisturizer for my skin?

So student adoption of stuff and thing can not only lead to more authentic sounding speech but is also a grand opportunity to practise a fairly key grammar concept. However, as I said earlier, most of my students tend to adopt one or the other and only rarely both. If I were to give them advice on this (I don't) then I would probably recommend thing as this is more commonly used and thus more likely to be accurate. Of course, most of them choose stuff. I think that they think it sounds cool. So they end up doing their own thing, whatever stuff I try to tell them.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.