The importance of hedging in writing - how and why we use it - and the potential problems of overuse. Includes a definition of hedging language, plus examples of hedge words and phrases.
Going solely by the title of this post, you’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth the hedges that grow in our gardens have to do with writing. But of course we’re not going to be discussing shrubbery.
We’re going to look at the approach to making statements and claims, expressing opinions, and answering questions, known as hedging – with a focus on how we can use hedging language in our writing.
If you write academic English, you are most likely already familiar with hedging as a linguistic device as it’s extensively used in this type of writing.
But if you’re not quite sure what hedging language is we’ll take a quick look at its definition next, before moving on to look at examples of hedge words and phrases in use, and then its importance as a linguistic device in academic writing.
Finally, we’ll look at why we should avoid overusing hedging words and phrases in our writing.
What is hedging language?
Hedging language is also known as cautious language or vague language.
In this context, a hedge (noun) is a cautious, vague, or evasive statement.
And to hedge (verb) is to avoid answering a question, making a clear, direct statement, or committing yourself to a particular action or decision.
Hedging words and phrases are the things we write and say in order to soften our words, to make them less direct, and to limit or qualify claims and statements we make.
You're probably already familiar with hedging in news reports where journalists make frequent use of the word 'allegedly' - partly because the statements they make are not necessarily proven, and also to create a defense for themselves if confronted about the content of the report (protecting themselves from criticism and potential legal action in the process).
Examples of hedge words and phrases
Hedging is achieved in many different ways, including:
Hedged: It could be that human expansion of the greenhouse effect is the cause of global warming.
Not hedged: Human expansion of the greenhouse effect is the cause of global warming)
Hedged: The study's results are likely due to chance.
Not hedged: The study's results are due to chance.
We could conceivably finish the design outline by Friday.
There is a strong possibility, therefore, that we will have another economic recession within the next five years.
I suggest that we wait another week.
Scientists believe there will soon be a cure for this disease.
- It appears that…
- It can be argued that…
- We can assume that…
- It is likely to be the case that…
- It is probable that...
- It is conceivable that...
- It can be concluded that…
- The data indicate...
And vague language such as ‘about’, ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’, 'feel' and 'seems like'.
It's kind of difficult for me to do that. (which is less direct than 'It's difficult for me to do that' or 'I can't do that')
I feel that you should pay more attention to your children. (which is less direct than You should pay more attention to your children)
Hedging in academic writing
It’s accepted practice for hedging to be used extensively in good academic writing.
Using hedge words and phrases in academic writing allows you to be academically cautious, to acknowledge the degrees of uncertainty in your statements and claims, rather than claiming something is an absolute truth or fact.
It allows you to be both cautious and more accurate when you’re explaining and interpreting results, and when discussing the implications of those results.
Your reader understands the extent of your commitment to the reliability of what you are reporting and discussing. And there is less chance your claims will be questioned or disputed by other academics.
Here are some examples of hedging in use in academic writing:
- Another possible area for further research could be...
- One possible implication of this is that...
- The evidence from this research suggests that...
- The data collected from this study appears to support the assumption that...
- The combined data from these studies appears to indicate there may be a link...
- It seems likely that these results are due to...
- A possible explanation for this discrepancy might be...
- There are various possible explanations for this...
- It is almost certain these changes can be attributed to...
- There is a strong possibility that X would be enhanced by...
- Current research appears to suggest that...
Potential problems with hedging
It’s likely that overuse of hedging will lead your reader to wonder where is the author of this piece, and where do they really stand on these issues?
NOTE: As I typed the sentence above it occurred to me that it would (could?!) be more convincingly written as:
“The overuse of hedging will lead your reader to wonder, where is the author of this piece, and where do they really stand on these issues?”
But I'll leave it unedited as a small reminder that we need to consider how strong or weak we want our hedging to be in our writing, and indeed if we want or need to use these words and phrases at all!
There will be times when your readers will want to see that you are happy to stand by your ideas and statements; too much hedging will only make it seem as if you are writing without any conviction. And why should they have any belief in what you write if it appears that you do not?
Depending on what you’re writing, sometimes you have no choice but to use hedging words – to hedge – for example, in academic writing, legal documents and news reports.
In general, using hedging words and phrases should be a conscious choice with a purpose, and not a habitual feature of your writing that runs the risk of you sounding like you don’t have confidence in your thoughts, ideas, and opinions.
Use them where needed to soften what you say - to make it less direct - and to limit or qualify claims and statements you make.
Typely proofreading software identifies hedging language words and phrases in your texts, giving you the opportunity to consider the results and, depending on how strong or weak you need your hedging to be, you can tweak or rewrite accordingly.
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