In academic writing, claims are often couched in cautious or tentative language. This is known as ‘hedging’. Compare these two sentences:

  • Water shortages trigger conflict between nations.
  • Water shortages may trigger conflict between nations.

The first sentence indicates a high level of certainty; indeed, the claim, or assertion, is presented as a fact. The second sentence, on the other hand, is more tentative, suggesting that conflict will occur in certain circumstances or under certain conditions, but not necessarily in every case.

As the example above illustrates, the use of hedging enables the writer to make claims that are proportionate to the evidence available at the time of writing. In other words, hedging language helps to make statements as accurate as possible. Since there is a wide range of hedging words and phrases, it is important to choose one that reflects the strength of the supporting evidence. The use of the word ‘probably’ in the sentence below indicates that the evidence is fairly strong. In the second sentence, the more tentative word ‘could’ was selected, indicating that the evidence is weak.

  • The fire was probably caused by a fault in the engine temperature gauge.
  • The fire could have been caused by a fault in the engine temperature gauge.

Paying due attention to accuracy helps to avoid, or at least reduce, criticism of your work.

Hedging is also used to mitigate criticism of other authors’ work, as in the examples below:

  • Johnson (2007) appears to ignore the adverse psychological side-effects of this approach.
  • The risks of the new vaccine may have been overstated.

Hedging language

A wide range of words and phrases can be used in hedging:

  • Modal auxiliary verbs:
    can, could, may, might, should, would
  • Other modal verbs:
    appear, look, seem, tend
  • Probability adjectives:
    likely, possible, probable, unlikely
  • Probability adverbs:
    perhaps, possibly, probably, presumably
  • Frequency adverbs:
    generally, usually, often, occasionally, seldom