Hedging Usage in Academic Discourse

Hedging is used widely in daily conversation, but in text hedging is used most commonly in academic writing. This paper will aim to describe what exactly academic hedging is and its purpose in academic writing, the differences in author and reader perception of hedging, the variations in usage across disciplines, and the variations in usage between native English speakers, and non-native English speakers.

There is a large body of literature based in hedging, mostly because there is conflict over what exactly the definition of the term is. Most scholars agree that there is no way to compile a list of all possible hedges, but the definitions proposed by scholars vary. One of the first definitions of the term comes from Lakoff (1973 p.471)  in which he defines hedges as “words whose job it is to make things fuzzy or less fuzzy.” This definition in itself is fairly ‘fuzzy,’ and it is no wonder researchers have wanted a more precise definition of the term. Prokofieva & Hirschberg (2014) define hedging as “a phenomenon in which a speaker communicates a lack of commitment to what they are saying” (p.1) This definition gets a bit more precise, but there are still nuances of hedging that are absent. Prokofieva & Hirschberg (2014) go on to further this definition, however, by breaking down hedging into two categories. They state that there are relational hedges, in which the author introduces some sort of uncertainty about their own relationship with the content. Within the relational hedge, there is a subclass called attributive hedges in which the speaker attributes the content to someone else. There are also propositional hedges, in which the author introduces uncertainty about the actual content of the proposition. This distinction of types of hedging furthers the understanding of the definition, and it has been echoed by other scholars in different terms. Prince, Frader, and Bosk (1982) (cite from Crompton) identify the same two categories, where relational hedges are called shields and propositional hedges are called approximators. The most compelling definition of hedging that is tailored to academic hedging specifically comes from Crompton (1997) in which he states “a hedge is an item of language which a speaker uses to explicitly qualify his/her lack of commitment to the truth of a proposition he/she utters” (p.281). Not only does he propose the definition, but he also provides a test for whether or not something does, indeed, qualify as a hedge: “can the proposition be restated in such a way that it is not changed but that the author’s commitment to it is greater than at present? If ‘yes’ then the proposition is hedged” (p. 282). For this test, the part of the proposition needing to be changed in order to increase author commitment is the hedge.

We have a working compilation of definitions for academic hedging, but there is still conflict in the literature about the perception of when a hedge exists; this existence is tied to the perceptions of author and reader. Markkanen & Schroder (1997) propose that hedging only exists when it is recognized by both reader and writer. This definition clashes with those above, in that the hedge does not exist on its own in the writing- it only exists through perception. Lewin (2005) performed a study of author and reader perceptions of hedging to demonstrate the differences in those perceptions. She compiled a small group of authors and had them mark their work for places they toned down their claims (this phrase was used to avoid negative undertones of the word hedging). She then had a sample of readers mark those same texts for places they thought the author was toning down their claims. Her findings were that author and reader perceptions of where hedging was taking place were very different. Not only did authors mark places where they had toned down, but also places where they toned up their claims. The readers marked many hedges that the authors did not mark at all. Lewin (2005) notes that the authors did not mark attributive hedges, and they marked modal hedging uses only half the time. Lewin proposes that this may be because the authors only see hedges as ones that they are intentionally placing within the text; in other words, there are hedges that are expected in academic writing that are inherent to the genre, and are therefore not intentional to the writing. She states that “hedges in scientific claims are the norm or even obligatory and, therefore, are not given special attention” Lewin (2005 p. 174).

 

While the concept of hedging is used across all academic discourse, it is important to know that the frequency of its usage varies across disciplines. Markkanen & Schroder (1997) assume that “use of hedges varies according to the field the writer represents…. It could be expected… fields like linguistics or philosophy… would contain more hedging than… natural sciences and technology because of the different bases of argumentation in these fields” (p. 10). This would seem to back up the notion from Lewin (2005) that there are rules inherent to specific genres, and by extension, specific disciplines, and that use of hedging is included in these norms. Hardjanto (2016) performs an investigation of literature spanning the disciplines of economics, linguistics, medicine, natural sciences, and engineering, with the goal of examining the number and type of hedges used, focusing on modal auxiliaries as hedges. The findings were that each discipline had a consistent level of hedging usage, and that they could all be lined up on a continuum of hedging usage from least to greatest. What Hardjanto (2016) found was consistent with what Markkanen & Schroder (1997) had assumed:

As hedges, modal auxiliaries tend to be more common in soft sciences (linguistics and economics) than in hard science (engineering and natural sciences) whereas their use in health sciences (medicine) does not seem to show any significant difference as compared with soft and hard sciences. (p. 47)

 

This places these fields along a continuum of hedging usage from soft sciences at the most to hard sciences at the least and, oddly, with medicine somewhere along the middle. Hardjanto (2016) attributes this to the same thing as Lewin (2005), in that “this disciplinary variation seems to have been caused mostly by different research traditions” (p. 47). These findings further the idea that hedging usage is inherent to specific genre expectations.

 

The nuances of hedging and the specificity of genre expectations within academic discourse make learning the appropriate usage of hedging extremely difficult for English language learners. Even understanding the meaning of hedging in writing can be lost on non-native speakers, as Hyland (2000) (cite in Lewin) finds in a study of readers awareness of hedges. The study found that non-native speakers were not aware of markers of hedging within texts, and when asked about author certainty of content, did not reference or regard the hedges as markers of author commitment. This shows that non-native speakers are not only not connecting hedging to author certainty, but they are not even aware of the hedges and their meaning at all within the text. Hardjanto (2016) states that “modal auxiliaries are notoriously difficult for first or second language learners, let alone foreign language learners” (p.10), and that non-native speakers do not understand the “nuances of modal verbs and do not use them as frequently as native speakers do” (p.10). Oprit-Maftei (2016) analyzes the use of hedging from Romanian authors that are non-native English speakers. The findings were that when hedging, the authors most commonly used shields, and that this usage not only far outweighed other types of hedging, but was used by every single author in the study. Oprit-Maftei (2016) also found that instead of understanding and using the English forms of hedging, the authors commonly tried to “use long hedges and compound hedges by transferring hedging strategies from their native language” (p.77). These findings all together show the difficulty of usage and understanding of hedging in academic texts for non-native speakers of English.

 

The discussion in this paper of the complexity of defining hedging among well-educated speakers of English highlights the difficulty of fully understanding the concept, even for native speakers of the language. The term itself is complex, and the complexity is furthered by its perception from author and reader, and the genre conventions that accompany it. For a native speaker understanding the complications of the word and taking the time to fully understand genre expectations and norms of usage is a large feat, and typically requires extensive education to understand the nuances of forms. The use of hedging is vital to academic discourse, and for non-native speakers, a misunderstanding of the term can be a block into English academic discourse and academic communities. Education of native speakers of English could benefit from specific education based on academic discourse differences and genre expectations.   Education of non-native speakers on hedging-specific learning, in which students would learn about hedging and academic discipline nuances in depth, is vital to their ability to participate in academic discourse and communities.

 

 

 

References

Crompton, P. (1997). Hedging in academic writing: some theoretical problems. English For Specific Purposes, 16, 271-278.

Hardjanto, T. (2016). Hedging through the use of modal auxiliaries in english academic discourse. Humaniora, 28, 37-50.

Hyland, K. (2000). Hedges, boosters, and lexical invisibility. Language Awareness, 9, 179-197.

Lakoff, G. (1973). Hedges: s study in meaning criteria and the logic of fuzzy concepts. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 2, 458-508.

Lewin, B.A. (2005). Hedging: an exploratory study of authors’ and readers’ identification of ‘toning down’ in scientific texts. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4, 163-178.

Markkanen, R., & Schroder, H. (1997). Hedging and discourse: approaches to the analysis of a pragmatic phenomenon in academic texts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Oprit-Maftei, C. (2016). Hedging- the use of cautious language in academic research papers written by non-native english authors. International Conference “Risk in Contemporary Economy”, 17, 75-78.

Prince, E., Frader, J., & Bosk, C. (1982). On hedging in physician-physician discourse. Linguistics and the Professions, 83-97.

Prokofieva, A., & Hirschberg, J. (2014). Hedging and speaker commitment. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cs.columbia.edu/~prokofieva/Prokofieva_Hirschberg_Paper.pdf