British people certainly love their garden hedges, but what does the word ‘hedging’ mean when applied to academic writing? It bears some relationship to the idea of a hedge containing something in a soft, gentle way, unlike the sharp lines of a fence or wall. In everyday speech and writing hedging uses certain words and phrases to ‘soften’ the impact of a statement, for example:
‘I wonder if I could possibly ask you to move your car?’ rather than ‘Please move your car’.
British people are known throughout the world for using this type of hedging a great deal in their verbal and written communication – sometimes to the point where it is a bit difficult to tell what they are actually saying!
Words such as likely (almost certain), probable (fairly certain) and possible (not very certain) are examples of words indicating the extent of the ‘softening’ which can be introduced by hedging words and phrases.
We also hedge when we are expressing a personal opinion, but also want to allow ‘room’ for someone else’s view, too:
‘That was probably the best film I’ve seen this year.’
Hedging in academic writing is related to this idea of moderating one’s personal view of a topic, and is particularly seen in literature reviews and other parts of essays, dissertations and theses where the writer is expressing a view, but cautiously. Here are a few examples:
‘Einstein is generally considered to be the greatest theoretical physicist of the twentieth century.’
‘Current studies appear to suggest that global warming is leading to rising sea levels.’
‘The data reported by this research supports the assumption that …’
It can be difficult to deal with these rather ‘vague’ ways of expression yourself, particularly if you are new to academic writing, and/or you are using a second language, but this excellent page from the University of Manchester website is very clear and and contains many useful and practical examples: www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/using-cautious-language/.
When I am editing academic writing I will comment on any statements which I feel need to be hedged, and make appropriate suggestions. As always, the work you submit must be your own, so you will need to consider my suggestions (remember, I am not the expert on your subject, you are!), think about how strong (or weak) the hedging needs to be and then rewrite the section appropriately. I will then be happy to check your changes to make sure that the writing is still accurate and flows smoothly.