Own Your Words: Avoiding Hedging in Academic Writing

By Harris Armstrong

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Many scholars who produce research refrain from making absolute claims and engage in a practice referred to as “hedging.” So, what is hedging and why should you avoid it? In academic writing, hedging is the use of non-definitive or cautious language to make claims. One should avoid hedging in excess because it will weaken the argument and reduce its clarity. The three most commonly used hedging techniques are: 1. qualifiers, 2. passive voice, and 3. apologetic quotation marks.

  1. Qualifiers (or modifiers, such as supposed, arguably, possibility, and appear) are used to limit the meaning of other words. They are vague and noncommittal, and, while there are appropriate times to use these qualifiers and others like them, the problem lies with using them in excess. Expressing too much doubt can make an argument weak and ineffective.
    1. To avoid hedging in writing limit the use of qualifiers.
  2. Sentences written in passive voice focus on what or whom is receiving a particular action (see our blog on passive versus active voice). An example of the passive voice would be: “The results of the experiment were reported by Smith and Cohen.” However, it is possible to construct a noncommittal form of passive voice within a sentence when the individual performing a particular task remains unnamed: “The results of the experiment appear to demonstrate…” Noncommittal passive voice is considered a form of hedging because it allows authors to remain ambiguous about the identity of the agent of the action.
    1. Presenting results in active voice will improve clarity and accountability for the reader.
  3. Apologetic quotation marks are typically used to express irony or to establish that a word or expression is not the author’s and/or is not a common usage of the word. For example: “While some consider Marx’s ‘critique’ of capitalism to be accurate, history has demonstrated the resilience of this particular economic system.” The word “critique” is placed in quotation marks to mock Marx’s argument and suggest it is illegitimate. This allows the author to guide the reader in a particular direction rather than assuming the reader will make an objective assessment of their own.
    1. Since this form of hedging may be perceived as insulting, it should be used sparingly or not at all.

While this is hardly the final word on hedging in academic writing, I hope that this brief introduction has been useful. The best way to avoid hedging in writing is to make clear, definitive statements.

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