A New Year’s resolution on hedging

rite of passage – Christmas BokehAs 2020 draws near, I think about what I did this time last year, when I said things such as ‘I reckon I’ll exercise more’, ‘Maybe I’ll join the gym’. Hang on. ‘I reckon’? ‘Maybe’? What’s that?

That’s hedging – choosing language to make room for alternative possibilities, expressing something indirectly or expressing our level of certainty about a proposed version of reality. In everyday contexts, we often hedge to be polite:

  • I wonder if I can call you 9.30 am next Thursday?
  • Maybe we can discuss this at another time.
  • This was possibly her best performance.

Hedging can come across as being tentative, uncertain, even vague. Because it can detract from a message, clutter writing, even undermine the writer’s authority, hedging is frowned upon and considered counterproductive in scenarios that call for certitude and confidence. It’s not hard to see why – consider some of the forms that hedging can take:

  • introductory verbs (e.g. seem, tend, look like, appear to be, think, believe, doubt, be sure, indicate, suggest)
  • certain lexical verbs (e.g. believe, assume, suggest)
  • certain modal verbs (e.g. will, must, would, may, might, could)
  • adverbs of frequency (e.g. often, sometimes, usually)
  • modal adverbs (e.g. certain, definite, clear, probable, possible, likely to, generally speaking)
  • modal nouns (e.g. assumption, possibility, probability)
  • ‘that’ clauses (e.g. ‘it could be the case that …’, ‘there is every hope that …’).

Hedging does more than lubricate our social interactions. It frames our claims to truth and enables the writer to distinguish claims from facts. It reminds us that, far from being fixed or stable, knowledge is a constantly evolving state with fluctuating degrees of uncertainty.

Indeed, scientific endeavour tells us that knowledge is not discovered, but built upon conjectures informed by empirical observations. This method of establishing ‘truth’ is the reason scientists moderate the strength or scope of their claims.

I can understand how hedging may convey a lack of conviction in, and attenuate accountability for, the truth value of a statement. It may explain why urgent information reported by scientists has failed to grip political consciousness. But there are statements for which I would much rather be reminded that there is a space – a choice – between what is said and what I evaluate as true, rather than being told that something is true because someone says so.

That being said, I doubt that I can continue to postpone some of my resolutions, least of all for the new year. Happy New Year everyone!

Image credit: zen whisk rite of passage – Christmas Bokeh via photopin (license)

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