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Tentativity

Academic writing argument is rarely expressed in strongly positive language. To express an idea or finding in such a way would leave the writer open to attack by critical readers. To avoid making strong claims and expressing subjective opinions, academic writers use tentative rather then assertive language.. Compare the tentative and assertive language in the table below.

Tentative expression

Assertive expression

One could argue that the overall standard of English in Hong Kong has improved
The overall standard of English in Hong Kong has clearly improved.

 

Modal verbs such as could, may and might are common in academic writing because they help writers express uncertainty or tentativeness. Also common are the verbs appear to and seem to, as well as adverbs of probability: perhaps, possibly, probably, likely, unlikely.

Of course, depending on viewpoint and the available evidence, a writer can express greater or lesser degrees of certainty. Look at the examples in the table below.

1. Positive and assertive: Clearly, then, Hong Kong student’s standard of written Chinese is declining.
2. Suggesting likelihood: The evidence seems to suggest that Hong Kong student’s standard of written Chinese is declining.
3. Expressing less likelihood: It may/might/could be the case that Hong Kong student’s standard of written Chinese is declining.
4. Negative: It is unlikely that Hong Kong student’s standard of written Chinese is declining.

Click here for more information about modals and tentativity.

Task

In the table below, there are a number of assertive statements. Your task is to make them more tentative. Write your sentences in the right hand column of the table. The first one has been done for you as an example.

Assertive/expression
Tentative
  1. There is no doubt that PolyU students need to improve their standard of English
less likelihood

It may be the case that PolyU students need to improve their standard of English.

  1. The student who adopts a deep approach to learning will succeed in university study.
likelihood

  1. Students will not improve their language skills unless they work hard.
negative

  1. Students who work "smart" rather than hard will experience the most success.
less likelihood

 

 

Answers

 

Assertive/expression

Tentative

  1. There is no doubt that PolyU students need to improve their standard of English
less likelihood

It may be the case that PolyU students need to improve their standard of English.

  1. The student who adopts a deep approach to learning will succeed in university study.
likelihood

Your answer:

A correct answer:

The evidence seems to suggest that the student who adopts a deep approach to learning will succeed in university study.

  1. Students will not improve their language skills unless they work hard.
negative

Your answer:

A correct answer:

It is unlikely that students will improve their language skills unless they work hard.

  1. Students who work "smart" rather than hard will experience the most success.
less likelihood

Your answer:

A correct answer:

It may/might/could be the case that students who work "smart" rather than hard will experience the most success.

 

Last updated on: Monday, March 26, 2012