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What is the technical term for words that indicate probability?

For example:

You might mean this, but possibly that instead.

And some such words can be tagged on the end, maybe

I thought of 'filler' to start with, but that's more like, 'like', and um, 'um'.

I'm pretty sure there is one, but it's gone from me.

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    << Modality is the grammaticalized expression of the subjective attitudes and opinions of the speaker including possibility, probability, necessity, obligation, permissibility, ability, desire, and contingency. >>[Linguistics Girl], but check her sources before dismissing this outright. See also the study.com article on modal adverbs. Jun 18, 2017 at 16:42
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    Informally you could call them weasel words
    – Jim
    Jun 18, 2017 at 17:25
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    I think they are, for the most part, adverbs.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 18, 2017 at 21:59

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I agree with Edwin that if your question is the technical term for any word that talks about probability of an action, including "definitely" or "never", that modal adverb is the way to go.

However, I see that all of your examples say that something may or may not happen, and that the word that comes into your mind is filler. If you specifically mean words that serve no purpose other than to make a sentence weaker, then I think the word you want is hedge or qualifier.

According to the Oxford New American Dictionary, a hedge is "a word or phrase used to allow for additional possibilities or to avoid commitment, for example, etc., often, usually, or sometimes". Might, possibly, and maybe in your example are textbook hedges.

A qualifier, technically, can weaken or intensify a statement ("very" is a qualifier), but it's common to say that someone is qualifying or adding a qualifier and simply to mean that they are hedging. For example, this article describes saying that something is "my opinion" as a qualifier.

Jim's example of weasel words may also fit your usage, but note that it includes many words that don't deal with probability, and carries a stronger connotation that the person using them is being dishonest.

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  • Thanks. I think I was confused with modal verbs (I spoke to my English teacher about it!). The other options work as well... Jul 1, 2017 at 6:43

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