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"Hedging" in Scientific Writing


One meaning of hedge is a protective boundary of dense shrubbery. In writing, hedging is the use of cautious language to make noncommittal or vague statements, that is:

To evade the risk of commitment, especially by leaving open a way of retreat1


Authors allow for this opening in their statements and conclusions for several reasons: to report the limits of their findings, to protect themselves from the risk of error, and to convey modesty.

Cautious language has a legitimate and important place in scientific writing, although authors need to guard against using it to excess. Qualifiers (modifiers), the passive voice, and apologetic quotation marks are three commonly used hedging techniques.


1. Word choice: Unnecessary qualifiers

Qualifiers are words that modify or limit the meaning of other words. Qualifiers may be added justifiably to scientific writing to limit the scope of a statement.2

Hundreds of words and phrases can be used alone or in combination to express approximation, probability, or doubt. Common examples include the following:


Adjectives: apparent, certain, consistent with, few, many, most, possible, presumed, probable, putative, several, some, supposed

Adverbs: about, apparently, arguably, fairly, in general, largely, likely, more or less, mostly, often, perhaps, possibly, presumably, probably, quite, rather, somewhat, unlikely, usually

Nouns: appearance, indication, inference, likelihood, possibility, probability, suggestion, tendency, to my knowledge

Verbs: aim, appear, assume, can, could, estimate, indicate, infer, intend, may, might, presume, propose, seem, seen as, should, speculate, suggest, suppose, tend


When used in moderation, qualifiers temper a researcher's certainty about a method or observation.

However, double, triple, and quadruple synonyms are unnecessary (e.g., may be possible; seems to suggest, rather likely to indicate, may be seen as rather likely). Similarly, successive hedge words pile up within a sentence, depleting it of its strength and meaning:

A possible cause is likely the apparent tendency of a certain number of patients with diabetes to develop indications of retinopathy.


This sentence can be revised to minimize the number of qualifiers:

A possible cause is the tendency of patients with diabetes to develop retinopathy.

To strengthen your argument and increase clarity, limit the number of qualifiers in each sentence to only those necessary for accuracy—the remaining qualifiers will then do their job well.3


2. Point of view: Unnecessary passive voice

Sentences written in the passive voice focus on the receiver or product of the action. They include a form of to be and the past participle of a verb. A by phrase to name the performer follows or is implied (e.g., The results were reported by Thomas et al.).

A noncommittal form of the passive voice occurs when authors fail to name themselves (with the personal pronouns I, we) or other researchers as the performers. This type of passive often begins with the word It (e.g., It was apparent...; It has been noted...; It was decided...; It is known to be...).

In these sentences, the person performing the action remains unnamed: Who reported the results? To whom was it apparent? The reader is forced to guess who holds the view.

Passive-voice sentences have their place when the performer is less important than the action. For example, an author may decide to write in the passive voice in the Methods section (see "The Value of the Passive Voice").

However, passive constructions allow authors to hedge about the identity of the performer:

It was concluded that sleep deprivation has three effects on cognitive performance.


In this sentence, the passive voice protects the authors from the risk of uncertainty. However, this device increases ambiguity (Who concluded?). The reader may find it especially difficult to sort out who did what when authors use the passive voice to describe their own work and that done by other researchers in the same paragraph.

Unless you have good reason to write in the passive voice, use the active voice to identify the performer (e.g., We concluded that...). Doing so will improve the clarity and readability of your writing.


3. Punctuation: Unnecessary quotation marks

Some authors like to add quotation marks to emphasize expressions that are being used for irony or in a nonstandard or special sense:

Many patent "medicines" in the 1800s contained little more than alcohol and water.


Also called apologetic quotation marks or scare quotes, these marks are applied to tell the reader that an expression is not the author's and is not being used in the usual way.

The author hedges by adding quotation marks rather than trusting readers to draw their own conclusions or to recognize the irony or special use (e.g., see the title at the top of this page).

To avoid irritating your readers, use apologetic quotation marks sparingly or not at all. Many style guides consider them unnecessary.4-6


Summary

Devices for hedging—in writing, not gardening—include qualifiers, passive voice, and quotation marks.

These devices are useful when applied judiciously. To reduce ambiguity and improve readability:

  1. Eliminate unnecessary qualifiers in each sentence.
  2. Use the active voice as necessary to name the performer.
  3. Apply apologetic quotation marks sparingly, if at all.

Sources



  1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.; 2007.


  2. Sternberg RJ. The Psychologist's Companion: A Guide to Scientific Writing for Students and Researchers. 4th ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 2005.


  3. Matthews JR, Bowen JM, Matthews RW. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 2000.


  4. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.


  5. American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2009.


  6. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; 2003.


Questions or comments about this writing tip? Contact me online and I'll be happy to help.

For information on scientific and medical editing, please visit Science Editing Services.







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