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Using cautious language hedging

How can I use cautious language (or hedging) in my academic text?

Hedging refers to words and phrases that are used to soften the certainty of a statement. Because research is an ongoing process and knowledge is incremental, not all research questions have a definite answer, and a single study or paper can only provide limited insights. It is therefore sensible to use some hedging in your academic text. The following tips should help you do this.

  1. Recognize what is not certain

To determine if hedging is appropriate, ask yourself how certain a statement is. More research is usually needed to confirm findings from one study, and any limitations of the methodology make replication studies necessary. Unless something can be proven to be the case without any doubt, it is not certain.

  1. Avoid words and phrases that are too definite

If something is yet to be confirmed, avoid words or phrases that suggest absolute certainty. Adverbs such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘absolutely’ or ‘definitely’, and phrases like ‘proves to be’, convey a total absence of doubt and should be avoided.

  1. Know the words and phrases to express caution

Familiarize yourself with those words and phrases that convey caution. Think of adverbs such as ‘possibly’, ‘probably’ or ‘somewhat’, phrases such as ‘seems to’, ‘appears to’ or ‘suggests that’, and modal verbs such as ‘could’, ‘may’ or ‘might’.

  1. Don’t overdo it

Too much hedging can make you sound unsure of yourself and take away your authority as a researcher. Avoid using too many cautious words in your text. In addition, very cautious words such as ‘perhaps’ may sound too tentative, especially when added to a sentence already containing hedging (e.g. ‘This could perhaps suggest that…’).

Want to learn more? Read our blog post on hedging in academic writing.