Writing with Hedges

Good authors hedge their bets. That’s what English professors Booth, Colomb, and Williams claim. But is this always the case? See if you can identify any hedges in this selection from their book The Craft of Research.

“Some researchers think their claims are most credible when they are stated most forcefully. But nothing damages your ethos more than arrogant certainty. As paradoxical as it seems, you make your argument stronger and more credible by modestly acknowledging its limits. You gain readers’ trust when you acknowledge and respond to their views, showing that you have not only understood but considered their position. But you can lose that trust if you then make claims that overreach their support. Limit your claims to what your argument can actually support by qualifying their scope and certainty. . . .

“Consider mentioning important limiting conditions even if you feel readers would not think of them. . . .

“Only rarely can we state in good conscience that we are 100 percent certain that our claims are unqualifiedly true. Careful writers qualify their certainty with words and phrases called hedges. For example, if anyone was entitled to be assertive, it was Crick and Watson, the discoverers of the helical structure of DNA. But when they announced their discovery, they hedged the certainty of their claims (hedges are boldfaced; the introduction is condensed):

‘We wish to suggest a [note: not state the] structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). . . . A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey. . . . In our opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. . . . (2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear to be too small. (J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids.”)

“Without hedges, Crick and Watson would be more concise but more aggressive. . . .

“Of course, if you hedge too much, you will seem timid or uncertain. But in most fields, readers distrust flatfooted certainty expressed in words like all, no one, every, always, never, and so on. Some teachers say they object to all hedging, but what most of them really reject are hedges that qualify every trivial claim. And some fields do tend to use fewer hedges than others. It takes a deft touch. Hedge too much and you seem mealy-mouthed; too little and you seem smug. Unfortunately, the line between them is thin. So watch how those in your field manage uncertainty, then do likewise.”

The Craft of Research, 3rd ed.
Authors: Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
Publisher: Chicago University Press
Copyright 2008
Pages: 127-129

Questions to Consider:

1. What do the authors mean by a “hedge”?

2. Why must authors hedge when making arguments, even when they are experts in their field?

3. Do the authors do any hedging of their own in this selection?

4. Can you give an example of something you’ve read that came across too smug? How about too timid?

5. It can be tough to tell whether a blog post is trustworthy, knowledgeable, or well-argued. Often, a blogger neglects to hedge responsibly. How would you apply the “hedge test” to the blogs you read?

Advertisements

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: