How to use hedging devices to express caution in your writing
Reasons for using hedging devices
Hedging, sometimes known as vague or cautious language, is an important feature of academic writing.
Whether you are writing up the results or implications of research, or simply expressing an opinion, it is important not to be too dogmatic. In general, unless you have extremely strong evidence, you should avoid strong claims.
And, as a reader, you should be very suspicious of strong claims. If you read “these results prove that …” or “this enquiry has established that …” you should be very wary. Look at the evidence. Ask yourself if there are any other reports of a similar nature. Is is published by a reputable source? Are there any reputable studies which contradict this claim?
An important feature of academic enquiry is the willingness to change an opinion or a theory when new evidence come to light. So when we state something in writing we know that there is a possibility that we may be mistaken, or that evidence for our beliefs is not particularly strong, or that we may have misinterpreted the results of a survey or an experiment.
But there is another reason for using cautious language in your writing (and indeed in your speech). If you want others to accept, or even consider your ideas, you need to present them carefully. Even small children quickly learn that to get what they want they need to moderate their language (and most become quite adept at this).
For these reasons academics use cautious language when they offer claims, opinions, predictions or interpretations of evidence. They do this in various ways and the use of hedging devices is one of the most important.
These are the main language features used in hedging
Click on each one to see examples
consitute the largest group of verbs and only a few of these are used in hedging - those which indicate room for doubt or uncertainty (suggest, appear, seem, doubt, think, believe, indicate, imply, tend …). These verbs are normally followed by a complement clause: This suggests that relying on digital devices to remember information is impairing our own memory systems
These (could, might, may, would) are modal verbs
which are used in an extrinsic (or epistemic) sense - in this case the sense of doubt
or likelihood. Historical films may be decaying much faster than we thought thanks to ‘vinegar syndrome’
(possibly, perhaps, probably, maybe, apparently, plausibly, ..) are normally used within a sentence, and adverbials
(Quite possibly, In most cases, Typically, Most likely ..) normally introduce a sentence: Your memory probably isn’t as good as you think it is
Adjectives (probable, likely, certain, …) may qualify a noun (a slight
chance), or introduce a complement clause
as in the example below (an extraposed complement clause):So it is possible that the lack of technology made The Beatles better songwriters
Adjectives and adverbs of approximation
are mainly used with numbers.Loneliness affects approximately 9% of people over 65 in the UK
(Carrino and Pabon 2019).
Expressions of personal conviction or doubt are stance
adverbials.We believe that dreams act in a similar way – as a piece of fiction
(Lockheart and Blagrove 2020).
Of course, I must emphasise that these studies are far from conclusive (Whitehouse 2012).
So while current studies suggest it is possible that tai chi offers health benefits, more evidence is needed to truly say if this is the case (Nyman 2020).
But before we mourn this apparent loss of memory, more recent studies suggest that we may be adapting (Noreen 2015).
All the examples above and those on the following pages were taken from authentic texts. You can see the original texts by consulting the bibliography on the credits page.
Now go to the next page to see how various examples of hedging devices are used in a longer piece of text.
Or go to the exercise page to practice using hedging devices.