HedgingUsing cautious language

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Hedging, or 'being cautious', is an important component of academic style. This section explains what hedging is, then looks at different ways to hedge, namely using introductory verbs, modal verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, and some other ways such as adverbs of frequency and introductory phrases. There is as an example passage so you can see each type of hedging in an authentic text, and, at the end, a checklist so you can check your understanding.



What is hedging?

Hedging, also called caution or cautious language or tentative language or vague language, is a way of softening the language by making the claims or conclusions less absolute. It is especially common in the sciences, for example when giving a hypothesis or presenting results, though it is also used in other disciplines to avoid presenting conclusions or ideas as facts, and to distance the writer from the claims being made.


The following is a short extract from an authentic academic text, with the hedging in blue (the full article is available here: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j5855).


Although duration of smoking is also important when considering risk, it is highly correlated with age, which itself is a risk factor, so separating their effects can be difficult; however, large studies tend to show a relation between duration and risk. Because light smoking seems to have dramatic effects on cardiovascular disease, shorter duration might also be associated with a higher than expected risk.


Hedges can be contrasted with boosters (such as 'will' or 'definitely' or 'always'), which allow writers to express their certainty. These are less commonly used in academic writing, though tend to be overused by learners of academic English in place of more cautious language.


Introductory verbs

There are various introductory verbs which allow the writer to express caution rather than certainty in their writing. The following is a list of some of the most common ones. Some of these are linked to cautious nouns, adverbs or adjectives, in which case these are also given.

  • tend to ➞ tendency (n)
  • assume ➞ assumption (n)
  • indicate ➞ indication (n)
  • estimate ➞ estimate (n)
  • seem to ➞ seemingly (adv)
  • appear to be ➞ apparently (adv)
  • doubt ➞ doubtful (adj)
  • believe
  • suggest
  • think

Modal verbs

Another way of being cautious is to use the modal verbs expressing uncertainty, in place of stronger, more certain modals such as will or would. The following are modals which express uncertainty.

  • may
  • might
  • can
  • could

Adverbs

There are many adverbs which can be used to express caution. Some of these are associated with cautious adjectives or nouns, in which case these are also given. The adverbs can be divided into two types: modal adverbs, which are related to the possibility of something happening, and adverbs of frequency, which give information on how often something happens.

  • probably ➞ probable (adj), probability (n)
  • possibly ➞ possible (adj), possibility (n)
  • seemingly ➞ seem to (v)
  • apparently ➞ appear to be (v)
  • arguably
  • perhaps
  • maybe
  • presumably
  • conceivably

Adjectives

The following adjectives can be used to express caution. Again, some of these are associated with other word forms, in which case these are also given.

  • probable ➞ probably (adv), probability (n)
  • possible ➞ possibly (adv), possibility (n)
  • likely ➞ likelihood (n)
  • doubtful ➞ doubt (v)
  • unlikely
  • uncertain

Nouns

The following nouns can be used to express caution. Some of these are associated with other word forms, in which case these are also given.

  • probability ➞ probably (adv), probable (adj)
  • possibility ➞ possibly (adv), possible (adj)
  • likelihood ➞ likely (adj)
  • assumption ➞ assume (v)
  • tendency ➞ tend to (v)
  • indication ➞ indicate (v)
  • estimate ➞ estimate (v)
  • evidence
  • trend
  • claim

Other phrases

There are three other ways to express caution. The first is to use words or phrases to show frequency, degree, quantity and time.

  • sometimes
  • often
  • generally
  • usually
  • commonly
  • frequently
  • occasionally
  • in general
  • as a rule
  • approximately
  • roughly
  • about
  • reasonably
  • somehow
  • somewhat

The second way is to use introductory phrases, such as the following.

  • It is generally agreed that
  • In our opinion
  • In our view
  • It is our view that
  • We feel that
  • We believe that
  • I believe that
  • To our knowledge
  • One would expect that

The final way is to use if clauses.

  • if true
  • if anything

Example passage

Below is an example passage. It is taken from the Limitations section of an article in the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal). It is used to give examples of different types of hedging in an authentic academic text (use the buttons to highlight different types of hedging). The full article, published on 17 July 2019, is available here: https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4786.


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This study has a few limitations. Firstly, we excluded 25% of the households from analysis because of missing information on either income or BMI. It is unlikely that such missing information is related to price elasticity or purchase behaviour [...] however, it may have resulted in some bias for the pooled values across groups. [...] Secondly, the baseline daily energy purchase estimates are sample average estimates that do not consider age or sex of the household members who could have different energy requirements. [...] Thirdly, we used a static model for weight loss based on changes in energy consumption, which might not fully reflect actual mechanisms of weight change. [...] Fourthly, the study does not reflect on the substitution of nutrients alongside changes in energy. For example, reduction in energy from high sugar snacks could lead to substitution of other foods that are lower in energy content but perhaps higher in other nutrients of concern, such as saturated fats or salt. The health impacts of such substitutes should be further analysed and considered in the decision making process around food price policies. Furthermore, the satiety index of sugary snacks can vary greatly: some high sugar snacks could reduce overeating at meals, hence the overall impact of reduced consumption of high sugar snacks would be partly cancelled out by consumption of larger portions during mealtimes. Studies of sugary drinks only would be prone to this phenomenon, as the satiety effect of sugar sweetened beverages is generally low.50 Fifthly, we assumed that all food purchased was consumed, which is unlikely, and some food will inevitably be waste. However, although the link between purchasing and consumption is far from perfect, it is strong (eg,51), and our estimates on the effect of price rises on change in energy purchased is likely to be similar to that on consumption even if absolute values differ.

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References

Bailey, S. (2000). Academic Writing. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer


Hyland, K. (2006) English for Academic Purposes: An advanced resource book. Abingdon: Routledge.


Hyland, K. (2009) Academic Discourse: English in a Global Context. London: Continuum.


Jordan, R.R. (1997) English for Academic Purposes: A guide and resource book for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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Checklist

Below is a checklist. Use it to check your understanding.


Item OK? Comment
I know what hedging is.
I know different introductory verbs which can be used for hedging (e.g. tend to, assume).
I know how modal verbs can be used for hedging.
I know some adverbs which can be used for hedging (e.g. possibly, probably).
I know some adjectives which can be used for hedging (e.g. likely, unlikely).
I know some nouns which can be used for hedging (e.g. estimate, trend).
I am aware of other types of language for hedging, i.e. phrases to show frequency, degree, quantity and time (e.g. sometimes, often, approximately, somewhat), introductory phrases (e.g. It is generally agreed that, In our opinion), and if clauses (if true, if anything).

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 28 April 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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