Hedging techniques

Hedging techniques, strategies, and examples in academic writing

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    Having effective hedging techniques makes academic research and writing much, much easier.  Why? Because hedging is a key part of both of these academic skills. Students who have mastered hedging are going to find life at university/college much easier (and more productive/successful).  We go into this at great length in our Academic Study Skills lesson.  If you want to start your journey to academic success with this now – hit Start Learning below!

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    But let’s start at the beginning – why do we need hedging in academic writing?

    Why do we need hedging in academic writing?

    In short – to show scientific ‘uncertainty’.  To help you understand this idea, let me ask you a question:  

    Will the sun rise tomorrow?

    Now you might answer that question in a few different ways – you might say:

    Yes

    Of course...

    Let’s say I then asked you how certain you were that the sun will rise tomorrow, you would probably say:

    100%

    Are you okay?

    And these are fair answers – because in normal life of course the sun will rise tomorrow.  But we’re not talking about normal life – this connects back to academic writing – and in academic writing (and thinking), things are a bit different.  

    To help me explain this, there’s a key word or idea that will help you to understand – and that key word/idea is empirical method or empiricism.

    The empirical method/empiricism

    It’s very rare that we would do this but we will get you to look these words up in your own language (or look below for an English definition) – these words/ideas are quite challenging to explain properly as they go deep.  

    MacMillan defines empiricism as: the belief that ideas should be based on real experience or scientific experiments rather than on theory.  

    Empiricism is key to the whole field of Western academic research and thinking.  This is the real reason why we push students away from using phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion” – something we discuss in our very popular post on What is academic vocabulary?.  

    Ultimately, this is not because the personal pronouns are not allowed in academic writing (primary researchers might choose to use them, for example) instead it connects to empiricism and academic authority.  We go into academic authority (and how you can ensure you have it in your work, etc.) in great deal in our lessons Academic Study Skills course.

    Anyway, back to the sunrise!

    Why do we need hedging in academic writing? (Part 2)​

    Now, let me ask you the same question as before: 

    Will the sun rise tomorrow?  

    Now, in everyday life, you will probably give the same answer as before – yes, of course it will.  But if you are looking at this question from an academic point of view (using empiricism), I would argue that unless you have somehow travelled into the future, seen the sun rise with your own eyes, and then returned to this moment in time now – you cannot say with complete and total certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow.  

    Pictured: probably not you.

    Don’t get me wrong, the odds are very, very high that the sun will rise tomorrow – I’m talking

    But there is the possibility that the scientific possibility that the sun might explode in the night – or the Earth might disappear … for normal life, we would just say that the sun will rise tomorrow – but academic writing and thinking needs to acknowledge the very, very small possibility that it won’t.   And this is why we hedge.  To show that we’re not certain – or just how certain we are.

    What is hedging in academic writing?

    Hedging is sometimes called ‘cautious’ or ‘vague’ language.  This is true but it doesn’t get to the key question we look at above – that is, why we hedge in academic academic writing.  But now you know why we hedge in academic writing – so let’s turn now to how…

    And this is why we hedge.  To show that we’re not certain – or just how certain we are.

    What hedging techniques can I use in academic writing?

    There are a number of hedging techniques that can be used when hedging in academic writing.  We go into these in some detail in our lesson on hedging – you can enrol in our Academic Study Skills course here – where we cover hedging and a wide range of other skills.  If you’re interested in seeing what we cover in this course, scroll down to the bottom of this post for an overview of what we cover.

    Returning to the question though – how do we hedge a sentence/idea in academic writing?  

    We tend to use three main items of language:

    • Modals;
    • Adverbs of frequency; and
    • Introductory verbs

    We’ll introduce these quickly in turn – with an example close to our hearts – renewable energy and electric cars (something we cover in detail in our Academic Lecture Listening Skills and Academic Writing Skills lessons).

    Some good news about electric cars

    Bloomberg NEF predicts that by the mid 2020s, electric cars will cost the same as ‘normal’ (internal combustion engine) cars.  Awesome, right?

    Let’s simplify this into something that lends itself to hedging:

    By the mid 2020s, electric cars will cost the same as petrol-powered cars (Bloomberg NEF, 2019).  

    One problem though – that word ‘will’ is very certain.  So let’s hedge this sentence with each of these types of hedging devices in turn, starting with modals.

    Modals

    Modals take a range of different forms – they can be verbs (e.g., can, may, might) , adjectives (certain, probable, possible), adverbs (certainly, probably, possibly), or nouns (certainty, probability, possibility).  They also show different strengths of meaning.  Compare, for example:

    By the mid 2020s, electric cars will certainly cost the same as petrol-powered cars (Bloomberg NEF, 2019).

    By the mid 2020s, electric cars will possibly cost the same as petrol-powered cars (Bloomberg NEF, 2019).

    All that’s changed is the modal but the meaning of these two sentences is quite different, right?  This is the power of hedging.

    Adverbs of frequency

    Adverbs of frequency (words like often, sometimes, rarely) can also be used to hedge.  For example:

    Bloomberg research is usually accurate so there is a good chance electric cars will cost the same as petrol-powered cars by the mid-2020s (Bloomberg NEF, 2019).

    In fairness, the phrase ‘a good chance’ is a further hedging device but the adverb of frequency does reduce the strength of the original claim.  Another example of hedging in action.

    Adverbs of frequency

    Introductory verbs are effectively very similar to reporting verbs (something we cover extensively in the Academic Study Skills lessons).  That said, reporting verbs tend to indicate the author’s attitude, position, or stance of a person.  Introductory verbs, on the other hand, can be used to show what evidence seems to show (tend, indicate, suggest).  For example:

    Bloomberg research suggests that by the mid-2020s, electric car will cost the same as petrol-powered cars (Bloomberg NEF, 2019).

    And so here the focus is on the research itself rather than the company that did it (i.e., Bloomberg).  Further, the claims made by the research are further softened by the introductory verb ‘suggests’ – one final example of hedging in action.

    Still not sure how to hedge sentences? Need to practice your hedging techniques?

    If you want to practice the hedging techniques we’ve looked at today, definitely check out our Academic Study Skills course (you can see an overview of the lessons included in this course below).  If it sounds like you hit, Start Learning and begin your journey to academic success TODAY!

    Otherwise, that’s us for our HeadStart Guide on writing effective academic paragraphs – we hope it’s been useful!  As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook.   Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list.  Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us!  We read every email.

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