What is hedging language and why is it important?
This is the first of three chapters about Hedging Language. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the overall concept of hedging language in academia
– Provide examples of hedging language to guide the learner
– Discuss the importance of including hedging language
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During your time as an academic, you’re likely to encounter the concept of hedging language, as this type of language is very common in both academic writing and speech. Anyone that wishes to succeed in publishing or completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree will have to become quickly familiar with what this language is, what it looks like, and why it’s used. This chapter therefore covers those topics precisely, with Chapters 2 and 3 discussing the many different types of hedging language that can be used in academic assignments.
What is hedging language?
In an academic context, such as when writing an essay, participating in a group discussion, or conducting a presentation, the writer or speaker of those assignments will be required to provide ideas, opinions, facts, arguments and evidence to support their research – as would the author of an academic textbook or journal article. To do this, every writer or speaker should be able to inform the audience of the certainty of their claims. While facts may be said with confidence, claims (opinions or arguments) which may be proven wrong by others, should be delivered in a more cautious manner, such as in the examples below:
Do you notice the difference between the fact and the claim in the above? The fact ‘humans live on Earth’ cannot be proven wrong and so does not require hedging language, while the claim ‘humans will likely destroy the planet’ could (in the distant future) be disproven. It is the hedging adjective ‘likely’ in this claim that provides caution, protecting the speaker or writer from being wrong. Hedging language, therefore, offers a type of modality that allows the speaker or writer to indicate their degree of confidence or certainty when delivering an idea or claim.
However, although the previous claim that ‘humans will likely destroy the planet’ uses some hedging language, this claim still isn’t easy to disprove because there’s no time limitation to that statement. Because we don’t know when humans may or may not destroy the planet, the writer or speaker may sound fairly confident when claiming this (using ‘likely’) without fear of being easily disproven. But is this true for the following two claims?
Which claim do you think is more certain, and which claim could be more easily disproven? A or B? Clearly, in claim A, the hedging adverb ‘probably’ indicates some degree caution, but this is not as cautious as the hedging phrase ‘it is possible that’ in sentence B. And is this any surprise? While claim B could be disproven today, it would take 150 years to disprove the speaker in A (which is beyond anyone’s lifetime). Clearly then, different hedging words and phrases like ‘probably’ or ‘it is possible that’ may be used to demonstrate varying degrees of caution and certainty.
Why is hedging language important?
As well as allowing a speaker or writer to provide softer and more cautious statements and claims, hedging language allows for the delivery of politeness strategies and for that speaker or writer to be indirect about the information they provide. But why would it be necessary to do this in an academic context? There are four primary reasons that an academic would choose to use hedging language:
1. To conform to academic standards of speech and writing.
2. To reduce the possibility of being proven wrong by other researchers, peers, or academics (such as your tutor). Remember that one of the primary purposes of academic research is to prove or disprove previously existing research.
3. To demonstrate accuracy and critical thinking when reporting research, showing that a study’s methodology may not be 100% accurate or its results completely trustworthy.
4. To use politeness strategies to concede to the reader or listener that there may be flaws in the information being provided.
Before moving on to Chapter 2 in which the different types of hedging language are discussed, let’s look at one more example:
Does this sentence have any hedging language, and is its claim true? By adding hedging language, we can make this claim more accurate and cautious by highlighting to the reader that it isn’t always the case that students get higher grades. Instead, we can show that there’s merely a tendency for this to be true:
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