Using Hedging/Qualifying Language

Although sometimes claims are phrased to take a firm stance on a topic, other times it is necessary or preferable to use what is known as hedging—or qualifying—language. Hedging allows writers and speakers to express their opinion cautiously, suggesting that there may be exceptions or circumstances under which the opinion does not apply. For example, the following sentence uses hedging language, which is formatted in italics: “Increased gas emissions from vehicles are probably a leading contributor to global climate change.” In this example, “probably” is used to indicate that the writer/speaker is fairly, but not entirely, confident that emissions are one of the primary causes of global warming. The hedging here can be useful in that, although there is mostly a consensus in the scientific community that global warming exists and humans are a major contributor to it, there is some dissent. Further, since the claim is referring to emissions as a “leading” factor, hedging allows for the possibility that there may be other factors that supersede it as causing global warming.

Depending on your writing style as well as the ideas you are trying to express, you will need to carefully select the qualifying language that is most appropriate to use. Some qualifying language is as simple as a single word (e.g., “probably”), whereas other qualifying language consists of entire phrases. For example, qualifiers include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • May or may not
  • Appears or seems
  • Suggests
  • Generally, in most cases, or typically
  • In some cases, at times, or under certain circumstances
  • Mostly, frequently, or usually
  • Rarely or almost never
  • Probably, likely, or possibly

Of course, because qualifying a claim means expressing caution or uncertainty, it also can lead the audience to question the strength of the claim and the authority of the person making it. The audience may interpret hedging as a reflection of the author’s/speaker’s doubt in his/her stance, which can then lead them to become doubtful as well. As a result, it is important to use qualifying language strategically and only when the pros of doing so outweigh the possible cons. Using the same example as earlier, the claim could be reworded to omit the hedging language, instead reading as, “Increased gas emissions from vehicles are a leading contributor to global warming.” Clearly the claim is now much firmer in its assertion that emissions are a major reason behind global warming, expressing no doubt that this is the case. On the one hand, the assuredness of the claim will convey confidence to the audience that could then lead them to be more willing to engage with the argument; on the other hand, though, it fails to account for dissent among researchers, and could be problematic in light of other contributors to global warming that may be greater influences than emissions from vehicles.

A final caution regarding qualifying language: depending on how you hedge you may end up creating vague and/or awkward phrasings that obscure your ideas. For example, let’s say the earlier claim was again reworded to state, “Increased gas emissions from vehicles are generally a leading contributor to global warming.” The inclusion of “generally” muddies the claim, resulting in confusion about what is meant. If you decide to use hedging language, then, always make sure it is appropriate and will not make it difficult for the audience to decipher what you intend. In addition, be careful about using intensifiers, which add emphasis to the language they accompany, when hedging, since doing so can lead to clunky, nonsensical phrasings. For example, the inclusion of the intensifier “very” in the following sentence makes the claim confusing and awkward to read:  “Increased gas emissions from vehicles are generally a very leading contributor to global warming.” Remember that in your writing (as well as speaking), every word counts, so use your words purposefully.