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Hedging

Aim: This page will help you to improve your academic essay writing style by using hedging.

Introduction

When you discuss ideas or data in your written assignments, you should use cautious rather than assertive language. This means that you should avoid expressions such as:

clearly obviously without a doubt certainly
undoubtedly definitely there is no doubt that absolutely

You should also take care when using words like always, never, every and all.

The reason for this is because academic writing usually reports on research, and in your research area there may be information that you have not found, exceptions to the rules that you find, and the situation may change over time. Therefore you need to use cautious language to avoid the possibility of people saying that you are wrong. BE CAREFUL: in the academic world teachers are looking for their students' mistakes, and researchers are looking for each others' mistakes. Criticizing mistakes and correcting them is part of scientific method, and is therefore common, and is regarded by researchers as a good thing to do.

No hedging Hedging
Let's now talk about the data in Figure 1. First and foremost, it's crystal clear that students don't have many opportunities to speak English outside the classroom. You can tell this because all the means are under 3.00. Clearly, PolyU students don't have any need to speak to parents, etc. in English. This is undoubtedly because their family members are Cantonese speakers. Obviously, there's no point in speaking English when everyone can speak Cantonese. As you can see, PolyU students never speak to their grandparents in English. This is not surprising because, as we all know, old people in Hong Kong can't speak English. That's because the education system wasn't very good in the past. You can see, though, that there are a few situations (overseas holidays and so on) where students do get a golden opportunity to use their English, even though this is not really very often. In a nutshell, then, the data in Figure 1 prove that PolyU students don't speak English much outside the classroom. The first section of the questionnaire asked the subjects to indicate on a six-point scale how often they speak in English in a range of non-academic situations. On the evidence of the findings presented in Figure 1, it would appear that tertiary students in Hong Kong generally have little need to speak in English outside the classroom.

The evidence suggests that undergraduates rarely communicate with their parents or grandparents in English. This finding is perhaps not surprising as census data indicate that the overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese (Cheung et al., 2003). In the intimate family domain, young people understandably have little need or desire to speak English, apart from special circumstances such as preparing for English language examinations.

The results indicate that the situation in which tertiary students use English least is in interactions with their grandparents. When interpreting this finding, it is worth noting that recent surveys have revealed that English is less widely known among Hong Kong people in their sixties and seventies than those in the 40-60 and 20-40 age groups (Chan, 2004). This largely stems from the fact that the provision of English-medium secondary education was limited in the 1940s and 1950s (Li, 2000). The majority of citizens in the 60-70 age group are likely to have received only a Chinese-medium primary education (So, 1992).

While the data in Figure 1 suggest that tertiary students tend not to speak English very frequently outside class, there are apparently several situations where spoken English has some degree of importance in the subjects?lives. As might be expected, the situation where the subjects need to speak the language most is on overseas holidays. As Cantonese is not widely spoken outside China, it is perhaps understandable that students need to communicate in English on trips to Europe, North America and other parts of Asia.

As noted above, students rarely talk to their immediate family members in English. However, it is interesting that some of the subjects apparently have some need to communicate with their relatives in English. One possible factor behind the use of English in this situation is that their relatives live in an English-speaking country. In the case of younger relatives (e.g. cousins), it is possible that they have no knowledge of Cantonese, while older relatives (e.g. uncles, aunts) may feel more comfortable using their adopted language.
 

Using this cautious language is called 'hedging'. A number of hedging techniques are summarised below. They are the use of verbs, modal verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, and generalisation.

1. Verbs

The following 'hedging' verbs are often used in academic writing:

suggest indicate estimate assume
  • The results indicate that the situation in which tertiary students use English least is in interactions with their grandparents.

The verbs appear and seem are used when a writer wishes to 'distance' himself / herself from the findings (and therefore avoid making a strong claim).

On the evidence of the findings presented in Figure 1, it would appear that tertiary students in Hong Kong generally have little need to speak in English outside the classroom.

Note that the writer also 'protects' himself / herself by using the phrase on the evidence of. These expressions are used in a similar way: according to, on the basis of, based on.

2. Modal verbs

Another way of appearing 'confidently uncertain' is to use modal verbs such as may, might, could and can.

  • In the case of younger relatives (e.g. cousins), it is possible that they have no knowledge of Cantonese, while older relatives (e.g. uncles, aunts) may feel more comfortable using their adopted language.

3. Adverbs

The following adverbs are often used when a writer wishes to express caution.

probably possibly perhaps maybe
apparently seemingly presumably conceivably
  • This finding is perhaps not surprising as census data indicate that the overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese (Cheung et al., 2003).

4. Adjectives

Another technique is to use an adjective.

probable possible uncertain unlikely
  • One possible factor behind the use of English in this situation is that their relatives live in an English-speaking country.

5. Nouns

The following nouns are often used in academic writing:

probability possibility assumption evidence likelihood claim
  • The evidence suggests that undergraduates rarely communicate with their parents or grandparents in English.

6. Generalisation

There are several ways in which you can qualify a generalisation.

(i) You can use the verb tend or the noun (have/be a) tendency (to) .

While the data in Figure 1 suggest that tertiary students tend not to speak English very frequently outside class, there are apparently several situations where spoken English has some degree of importance in the subjects? lives.

(ii) You can use an adverb such as:

generally largely primarily for the most part
predominantly mainly usually to a great extent
  • This largely stems from the fact that the provision of English-medium secondary education was limited in the 1940s and 1950s (Li, 2000).

(iii) You can use a qualifying expression such as most or the majority of.

  • The majority of citizens in the 60-70 age group are likely to have received only a Chinese-medium primary education (So, 1992).

(iv) You can identify exceptions by using expressions such as apart from, except for or with the exception of.

  • In the intimate family domain, young people understandably have little need or desire to speak English, apart from special circumstances such as preparing for English language examinations.

 

Exercise

Study the following examples and decide whether they correctly hedged or not:

 

 

Last updated on: Friday, March 23, 2012