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?

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Face the Fear—Peter Bregman’s Advice for Procrastinators


“Failure in a long-term project isn’t just a work issue; it’s an identity issue. Is it any wonder that we procrastinate?” This simple insight lies at the heart of Peter Bregman’s excellent counsel for those who have trouble getting started on BIG PROJECTS. You know who you are:

  • first-time book authors
  • second-, third-, and fourth-time book authors
  • PhD candidates confronted with writing a dissertation
  • public speakers
  • athletes
  • those who aspire to developing a new hobby
  • parents
  • generals of armies
  • book keepers
  • bloggers

Yep. Pretty much anyone who ever wanted to do something of value.

Bregman recognizes that the salami technique is useful, but he notes that it doesn’t deal directly with our “issues” as procrastinators on large undertakings. (The salami technique consists in slicing the biggies into smaller, more digestible sizes, then acting on each, one at a time, gradually making forward progress until the end is in sight.)

No need to repeat what Bregman says. Just visit his post for the Harvard Business Review here.

Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 1


I always have an unwieldy number of writing projects doubtfully spinning into existence at the same time. One tool that has proven its value is the Moleskine. Read more of this post

Acronym Crazy


There’s an acronym for everything. Well, almost everything. Acronym Finder has a database of over 200,000 acronyms, many of which serve multiple purposes. And the list is growing—TLIG. (Yes, I made that up . . . IMTU.)

The funny thing about acronyms is that they attract logophobes (people who dread words) and logophiles (people who love words). GF. (That’s “go figure.”) And since logophobes and logophiles are very different creatures, it would be unwise to adopt the acronym “LP” for both. Besides, LP is already taken.

Acronyms do come in handy. Often they are easier to say or remember than the phrases they abbreviate. Those that have a standard use are considered words in their own right, with their own entries in the main catalog of any good dictionary. The ideal acronym is pronounceable: NATO, AIDS, UNESCO. But a host of second-class acronyms aren’t pronounceable, even though we forget that they aren’t—for example, BBC, KGB, and DVD. An unpronounceable acronym achieves a kind of elite status when its written form is no longer accompanied by periods after each letter. So U.S.A. has by now been elevated to USA. Acronyms that are both pronounceable and normally written in lower case letters are truly special; they look like they’ve always been words: laser, radar, and snafu come readily to mind (if you happen to be consulting the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., for its entry on “acronym”).

Some of the most familiar acronyms stand for phrases that many people can’t recollect, or never even knew, as suggested by the following hypothetical, but easily imagined, conversation.

Ed: I work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fred: Never heard of it.

Ed: Have you heard of NASA?

Fred: Of course. Why do you ask?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Is the word ‘acronym’ an acronym for anything?” The answer is yes, sort of. There are two reasons for the qualification. First, “acronym” is a word in its own right, and was before it was “acronymized” (which, I stipulate, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable). This is a case of reverse acronymization, you might say. Second, there isn’t much demand for the acronym “acronym.” But there are some smarty-pants uses of “acronym” as an acronym. For these, check out Acronym Finder.

Acronym Finder isn’t just fun and games. If you ever forget what “ATM” stands for, and you have an urge to close that memory loop, AF is the tool to turn to. Be careful what you ask for, though. I blithely entered my name: D-O-U-G. Turns out this is an acronym with a single definition: “Dumb Old Utility Guy.” Maybe this blog post proves the point.

[Footnote: “Acronym” is not to be confused with “anacronym.” “Anacronym” isn’t a word, but it should be. In my own private lexicon it means “a word or phrase that has become obsolete.” Some acronyms are so popular that the words or phrases they represent are, in precisely this sense, anacronyms.]

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