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How to use hedging devices to express caution in your writing

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 hedging is one of the most important.

These are the main language features used in hedging

Click on each one to see examples

This suggests that relying on digital devices to remember information is impairing our own memory systems (Noreen n.d.).
Historical films may be decaying much faster than we thought thanks to ‘vinegar syndrome’ (Ahmad n.d.).
Your memory probably isn’t as good as you think it is (Nash n.d.).
So it is possible that the lack of technology made The Beatles better songwriters (Noreen n.d.).
This doesn’t prove life started in the vents, but it does renew the possibility that it did (Jordan n.d.).
Loneliness affects  approximately 9% of people over 65 in the UK (Carrino and Pabon n.d.).
We  believe that dreams act in a similar way – as a piece of fiction (Lockheart and Blagrove n.d.).
Of course, I must emphasise that these studies are far from conclusive (Whitehouse n.d.).
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 n.d.).
But before we mourn this apparent loss of memory, more recent studies suggest that we may be adapting (Noreen n.d.).

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.

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