Using Careful Language to Make One’s Claims

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When you communicate in academia, whether an essay, exam, or oral presentation, you need to tread carefully. To sound credible, you need to avoid making broad generalizations, using emotional language, and making opinions sound like facts. It’s all about maintaining a professional tone, and this is accomplished via cautious language in a practice known as hedging. This skill discusses the practice, ways to do it, and its applicability to both academic and professional writing.

Hedging is a practice that we are involved with in everyday life, perhaps in ways we don’t even consider—it’s automatic. With every probably, maybe and I suppose, we’re communicating doubt, uncertainty and as such, expressing that we’re simply not sure. Rather than come across as weak or indecisive, we will instead be regarded as honest and thoughtful. Check out the conversation in Figure 1:

The figure shows four dialogue boxes denoting a conversation. The first dialogue box reads, Are you travelling over the summer? The second dialogue box reads, Perhaps, but I'll have to coordinate with my brother first. The third dialogue box reads, Speaking of your brother, is he home yet? The fourth dialogue box reads, Maybe he's out.

Figure 1. Hedging in Everyday Conversation
A figure shows hedging in everyday conversation.

Consider, then, a response of perhaps, but I’ll have to coordinate with my brother first to the question of are you travelling over the summer? Consider the response of maybe he’s out, to the question of is your brother home yet? In the conversation in Figure 1, the use of tentative language—perhaps and maybe—signals doubt. This makes the speaker in such cases regarded perhaps as more reliable, as opposed to making claims that they are otherwise not able to back up.

But when writing essays and referring to the results of previous research and interpreting such, it is no different—we need to avoid making overly certain assertions unless we have absolute proof. We need to acknowledge that we could be wrong. This will win you trust from the reader and demonstrate that you’re being critical, because to turn opinions into facts by using overly assertive language will sound decidedly uncritical.

Suggested Readings
Caulfield, J. (2020, June 22). A quick guide to Harvard referencing | citation examples. Scribbr.
Enago Academy. (2021, September 30). What is hedging in academic writing?Enago Academy.
The Writing Center. (2021, October 17). Hedges: Softening claims in academic writing. George Mason University, The Writing Center.
IOE Writing Centre Online. (n.d.). Cautious language and hedging. University College London, IOE Writing Centre Online.
Smith, S. (2022, February 3). Hedging. EAP Foundation.