Time to get out the trimmers! No, not that kind of hedging!!

Hedging is an important tool that all writers should have in their arsenal, especially when writing in an academic or scientific context. But what is hedging? Hedging is a writing style used to make the meaning of a sentence less absolute. For example:

Without hedging: The commitment to some of the social and economic concepts was less strong than it is now.

With hedging: It may be said that the commitment to some of the social and economic concepts was less strong than it is now.

Some of the eagle-eyed science readers might already have spotted something: if scientific English is short, concise, and to the point, why would hedging have any place in a scientific publication? If science is about presenting facts, how do we make facts, which are either true or they aren’t, less certain? The answer is actually in the way science operates.

Firstly, we do not know everything. If we did, we wouldn’t need scientists, researchers, and all other associated professions to investigate the universe around us. If we did, we certainly wouldn’t need hedging.

Secondly, we don’t know the how and why of everything. We may know that something happens, but we may not be sure about how or why it is happening. Good luck explaining that in no uncertain terms!

Thirdly there are many things in science that cannot be measured or proved directly. Rather, the premise is to create a working hypothesis, test it, and run with it until proven incorrect.

As a result of the three aforementioned points, there are times when we are not one hundred percent certain about the observations and results of experiments performed. Because of this, we also need to leave a margin for error in our attempt to interpret what we have. All of these lead to a need for hedging.

So hedging is a way to show uncertainty, but how does one hedge exactly? In fact there are many ways to hedge: modal expressions, vague language, verbs, adverbs of frequency, nouns, ‘that’ clauses, adjective + ‘to’ clauses, and  ‘if’ phrases are the ones that we will cover here today.

1) Modal expressions

Modal expressions, for lack of a better explanation, are sets of set words (expressions) that contain a modal verb. But what is a modal verb exactly? You can find an explanation of modal verbs here.

Modal expressions can exist of just the modal verb or as multiple words forming a complete expression. For example:

Without hedging: Ingestion of this substance causes cancer.

With hedging: Ingestion of this substance may/might cause cancer.

Another hedge: It may be said that ingestion of this substance causes cancer.

The first hedging example uses one of the modal verbs ‘may’ or ‘might’ (the difference being the amount of certainty the author has about the cancer-causing substance). The second example is a ‘true’ modal expression in the sense that it expresses the possibility that someone may say …

2) Vague language

Vague language is our second example of hedging. For those who are reading from a social science/humanities standpoint, don’t pay any attention to the rest of this paragraph and just skip to the next one. FOR THOSE OF YOU FROM A SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND, NEVER HEDGE USING VAGUE LANGUAGE!!!! Why? Because science is precise and accurate as well as short and sweet. Vague language ≠ precise and accurate. Scientists and related disciplines, please skip to hedging type number 3.

Examples of vague language include ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’ and ‘just’.

Compare: ‘it just sort of happened’ instead of ‘it happened’.

3) Verbs

Verbs are probably the most common hedge in academic writing (do you see the hedging that I did there? If not, we are still coming to that type further on, so keep reading!). Many languages often have a number of verbs that have the same general meaning but are different in their small, specific meanings.

For example, think about the verbs ‘to look’ and ‘to watch’ in English. Both of them mean to point one’s eyes in a certain direction, usually at a phenomenon of some sort and receive visual information that then travels along the optic nerve to be processed by the brain. When comparing the two verbs, ‘to watch’ has a slightly different meaning. When one uses the verb ‘to watch’, it means that someone is looking intently or observing something for a period of time. If one ‘looks’ out over a landscape, one casts their eyes across it and enjoys the scenery. A hiker on a mountain overlooking great landscapes would ‘look’, whereas an eagle in the same situation would ‘watch’ the landscape in the hope of detecting smaller, scurrying animals that will become its lunch. It is another reason why we ‘watch telly/TV’ in English but we don’t ‘look at’ it.

Varying differences also exist between many verbs in English. Some verbs also include uncertainty in their meaning; They are often used with other verbs in sentences to portray this uncertainty. Some examples include: feel, reckon, suppose, seem, tend, look like, appear to be, think, believe, doubt, indicate, suggest, speculate, propose.

Note: modal verbs are sometimes put as part of this category as they are, well, verbs. Since writing is not a science (unfortunately), the boundaries between different topics are not always as well defined as we would like them to be.

Additional note: If you are including modal verbs with the verbs, please note that they are usually used in the conditional sense. This shows more uncertainty. Therefore, ‘might’ is more usual than ‘may’, ‘could’ rather than ‘can’, etc.

4) Adverbs of frequency

An adverb is a word that modifies the verb. In English, these often end in -ly. Adverbs of frequency add a time component to the sentence in the sense of something reoccurring. What do I mean by that? Take some examples: often, sometimes, usually, frequently. These words show how likely something is to occur based on repetition. For example, if adding acid and base together results in salt and water (basic chemistry), one could write:

Adding an acid and base together typically results in a salt and water.

In this example, typically is our adverb of frequency. Out of 100 identical experiments where we mix acid and base, we would expect the large majority of them to result in water and an acid-base salt.

The same goes for sentences such as:

Without hedging: When my stomach is full, I stop eating.
With hedging: When my stomach is full, I usually stop eating.

Without hedging: Replication errors during cell division are the cause for mutations in DNA.
With hedging: Replication errors during cell division are often the cause for mutations in DNA.

5) Modal adjectives

First, we had modal expressions, now we have modal adjectives. For those not following the linguist jargon, a modal adjective is an adjective that can only combine with a noun or with another modal adjective. For example: certain, definite, clear, possible, probable. Those adjectives could not combine directly with adjectives such as ‘small’ or ‘cowardly’.

As you might have guessed, the first three in the examples that I gave ARE NOT hedging as they do not have any uncertainty in their meaning. Please keep that in mind: just because something falls into one of these categories doesn’t automatically mean that it is hedging. You also have to look at its meaning and whether it adds an element of uncertainty. An example would be:

There is a probable link between being tired and not performing well on exams.

6) Nouns

Certain nouns also can be a type of hedging. As you may have guessed, those considered hedging are the ones that introduce uncertainty and replace a certain noun. Examples include assumption, probability, possibility, claim, and estimate/estimation. For example: 

The probability exists that there is a link between X and Y.

7) Adjective + ‘to’ clauses

These are exactly as they sound, but maybe some examples will help to enlighten you.

It may be possible to obtain

It is useful to develop strategies to combat forest fires.

8) ‘If’ clauses

These clauses can also be a source of hedging as they usually introduce a conditional component into the sentence. This condition has to be fulfilled before the rest can be evaluated. As you may have guessed, these clauses start with ‘if’ and usually refer to a condition introduced previously. For example:

If true, our study contradicts the myth that men make better managers than women.

In this example, it is possible that something (such as a condition or set of conditions) has been introduced (say, in the course of the study) on which the rest of the following sentence depends.

The ‘if’ clause may also come at the end of the sentence, as it does in this example:

One should study the atmospheres of exoplanets directly, if possible.

So we have come to the end of our list. However, there is still an important, even burning question: Can we have multiple hedges in a sentence? The answer to that question is simple: these are compound hedges. Since we can combine hedges, how many hedges can we combine? Answer:


Compound hedging

Double hedging is the combination of two hedges, such as:

It may (1) suggest (2) that…

(1) modal verb, (2) verb (with uncertainty)

Triple or treble hedging

It seems (1) reasonable to assume (2) the possibility (3) that…

(1) verb (with uncertainty), (2) adjective + ‘to’ clause, (3) noun (with uncertainty)

Quadruple hedging …

it would (1) seem (2) somewhat (3) unlikely (4) …

(1) modal verb, (2) verb (with uncertainty), (3) adverb of frequency, (4) modal adjective

If you found this interesting and want to take a look at some more related posts, I have a series of posts related to scientific English, all of which may be found on my Scientific English page. A good start for the series would be the post entitled A Brief Post on the History and Use of Scientific Language, followed by The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.

If you are looking for something lighter and funnier, why not take a look at French Phrases in English the French Wouldn’t Understand or English As She Is Spoke?

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