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“ Our results seem to suggest…” : HEDGING IN ACADEMIC DISCOURSE. Françoise Salager-Meyer Universidad de Los Andes MÉRIDA - VENEZUELA. Talk presented at Castell ó. Universidad Jaume I . May 3 rd , 2007. INTRODUCTION The concept and importance of hedges. Scientific discourse: weigh evidence

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fran oise salager meyer universidad de los andes m rida venezuela

“Our results seem to suggest…”:HEDGING IN ACADEMIC DISCOURSE

Françoise Salager-Meyer

Universidad de Los Andes


Talk presented at Castelló. Universidad Jaume I. May 3rd, 2007

introduction the concept and importance of hedges
INTRODUCTIONThe concept and importance of hedges

Scientific discourse:

  • weigh evidence
  • draw conclusions from data

Fundamental characteristics of science:

  • uncertainty
  • doubt
  • skepticism
  • probabilistic (not deterministic) nature

Stubbs (1986): Allsentences encode a point of view. Academic texts are no different in containing the author’s presence.

  • Scientists inevitably indicate their attitude in their writings.
  • Scientific objectivity?
  • Academic writing cannot be considered as a series of impersonal statements of facts that add up to the truth.
  • Sociology of science: academic discourse is both socially situated and structured so as to accomplish rhetorical objectives.

These objectives are linguistically realized by means of hedging devices, such as: can, perhaps, may, suggest, indicate.

  • Hedges: interactive elements that serve as a bridge between the propositional information in the text and the writer’s factual interpretation

. Commentative potentials of any language

  • Fact:
    • This medicine will help you recover quickly.
    • Diarrhea kills more young children around the world than malaria, AIDS and TB combined. Oral rehydration treatment reverses dehydration in more than 90% of the cases.
  • Hedge: distancing oneself from the statement
    • This medicine can/could/may/might/ help you recover quickly.
    • Diarrhea kills more young children around the world than malaria, AIDS and TB combined. Oral rehydration treatment can reverse dehydration in more than 90% of the cases.


  • Equally common in the arts and the sciences: occur between 1/3 and ½ of all sentences (Skelton 1988)
  • Varies according to:

- IMRaD sections of research papers (RP)

- academic genres

  • Modals:
    • make up 54% of all the forms used to denote epistemic modality in RP (Adams Smith 1984)
    • account for about 1 word in every 100 in RP (Butler 1990)
    • make up 8% of all finite verbs in RP (Hanania and Akhtar 1984)
    • make up 27% of all lexical hedging devices in biology RP (Hyland 1994)


(Not mutually exclusive)

1. Cover-up tactic:hedges as scientific imprecision

  • tone down one’s statements
  • reduce the risk of opposition
  • signal distance
  • minimize the “threat to face”
  • purposefully avoid categorical/absolute statements (Kubui 1988, Fand 1989, Salager-Meyer 1994, 1998, 2000)

This position associates hedges with scientific imprecision, understatements and/or linguistic cues of bias used to convey:

  • scientific imprecision
  • evasiness
  • tentativeness
  • fuzziness
  • mitigation of responsibility
  • mitigation of certainty to the truth value of the proposition

In this view, hedges = the “politician’s craft”(Skelton 1996)

  • i.e., a willed mitigation
  • obfuscation for dubious purposes
  • avoid absolute statements which might put scientists (and the institutions they work at) in an embarassing situation

- Our resultsseem to suggest that in Third World countries the extensive use of land to grow exportation products tends to impoverish these countries’ population even more.


Indicate the hedges in the following sentence

- Somewhat paradoxically perhaps, on the wave of a rising hegemony of English, voices can be heard in favor of papers and dissertations being written in Polish. Only to some extent this may be the effect of the interdisciplinarity of research topics. It may also be interpreted as a lowering of standards with students having difficulties with writing academic English despite their passive knowledge of the language and good fluency in speech.



2. Ways of being more precise in reporting results

Hedges may represent the true state of the writer’s understanding.

    • They may be used to negotiate an accurate representation of the state of knowledge under discussion
    • Writers may wish to reduce the strength of their arguments
    • Thus, writers are saying exactly what they mean
    • Writers purposefully choose to remain vague in their statements
  • NOT a cover-up tactic

The above example reflects

  • genuine uncertainty?
  • real lack of confidence?
  • purposeful obfuscation?


3. Positive or negative politeness strategies(Myers 1989)

Hedges are used to mitigate 2 central positions characteristic of scientific writing

  • Present claims/findings/opinions pending acceptance by the international scientific community (Imposition? Caution is necessary)
  • to denyclaims presented by others (No offense)

- Our analyses indicate that higher doses of fish oil can benefit individuals with untreated hypertension.(Double/compound hedge)

  • “Humble servants of the discipline” (Myers 1989)
  • Established facts (no hedging):

- Influenza is the most important viral infection of the respiratory tract.


Hedges: rational interpersonal strategies which

      • support the writer’s position
      • build writer/reader or speaker/listener relationships

-I think that perhaps you should have analyzed the benefits these exportation products could have on foreign currency increases.

Could reflect:

  • a polite and diplomatic disagreement
  • genuine display of uncertainty on the speaker’s part
  • The function of hedges may not simply be to avoid FTAs but to conform to a well-established style of scientific writing (all functions can overlap)


4. Conventional scientific writing style(Banks 1994)

“Hedges are first and foremost the product of a mental attitude and decision about the function of a span of language are bound to be subjective” (Salager-Meyer 1994)



1. Modal auxiliaries

may, can, might, could, would

-Such a measure might be more sensitive to changes in health after specialist treatment.

- Concerns that naturally low cholesterol levels could lead to increased mortality from other causes may well be unfounded(Cumulative hedging effect).

- Advances in technology could allow exploration of the anatomical basis of subjective fatigue.


2. Modal lexical verbs (“speech act verbs” expressing doubt and evaluation)

    • to seem, to appear(epistemic verbs)
    • to believe, to assume, to suggest, to estimate, to tend, to think, to argue, to indicate, to propose, to speculate

- Our analyses suggest that high doses of the drug can lead to relevant blood pressure reduction.(Here too we have a cumulative hedging effect)

- These results indicate that the presence of large vessel peripheral arterial disease may reflect a particular susceptibility to the development of atherosclerosis.(Same cumulative hedging effect as above)

- In spite of its limitations, our study appears to have a number of important strengths.

- Without specific training, medical students communication skills seem to decline during medical training.


3. Adjectival, adverbial and nominal modal phrases

      • probability adjectives: e.g.,possible, probable, un/likely
      • nouns: e.g.,assumption, claim, possibility, estimate, suggestion
      • adverbs: e.g.,perhaps, possibly, probably, practically, likely, presumably, virtually, apparently.

-Septicemia is likely to result, and this might threaten the patient’s life.

- The setting of the neural mechanisms responsible for this sensation is possibly altered in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.

- This is probably due to the fact that Greenland Eskimos consume diets with a high content of fish.


4. Approximatorsof degree, quantity, frequency and time: e.g.,approximately, roughly, about, often, occasionally, generally, usually, somewhat, somehow, a lot of.

- Fever is present in about a third of cases and sometimes there is neutropenia.

- Persistent subjective fatigue generally occurs in relative isolation.


5. Introductory phrases

  • I believe
  • As far as I/we know
  • To our knowledge/standpoint
  • It is our view that
  • We feel that

- We believe that the chronic fatigue syndrome reflects a complex interaction of several factors. There is no simple explanation.


6. Certain “if” clauses

  • .If true
  • . If anything

-If true, then our study contradicts the myth that fishing attracts the bravest and strongest men.


7. Compound/complex hedges

    • a modal auxiliary + a lexical verb with a hedging content
    • a lexical verb + a hedging adverb or adjective
  • a) Double hedge

- It seems reasonable/probable

- This may suggest that

- It seems likely that

- It would indicate that

- This probably indicates


b) Treble hedges

- It seems reasonable to assume that

  • c) Quadruple hedges

- It would seem somewhat unlikely that

- It may appear somewhat speculative that



1. Hedging is a human enterprise, a resource that is inherent to common language (need of modulating discourse).

2. Hedges are "strategic stereotypes" that permit language users/scientists to:

  • say something and to comment on what they are saying
  • gain communal adherence
  • warrant the highest degree of acceptability for the claims they present to the world\'s store of knowledge, i.e., to the scientific community at large
  • present themselves as cautious, coy, humble and modest servants of their discipline
  • diplomatically negotiate their claims when referring to the work of colleagues and competitors.
  • anticipate peers\' criticism
  • take oratory precautions
  • avoid the “boomerang effect”

3. Merely used to convey fuzziness or vagueness?

4. Hedges: devices (or discourse strategies) used to reflect:

  • some fundamental characteristics of today\'s science (skepticism, uncertainty and doubt)
  • the true state of the writers\' understanding and state of knowledge.

A full understanding of hedging devices is critical to academic success and eventual membership in a professional discourse community.