Teaching Writing – Hedges
This ESL lesson teaches English hedging techniques. Hedging is an important writing skill because it shows ESL students how to express sophisticated ideas and avoid broad claims that, sometimes, can appear clunky. Learning English hedging techniques and vocabulary improves the student’s ability to express reasonable arguments, sound more persuasive and communicate with greater precision.
What is Hedging?
Hedges are not used all of the time. Hedging is used for a purpose. Writers, and speakers, like to hedge in order to improve communication by presenting an idea or message in a package that makes it easy for the listener to receive. This packaging can have many purposes:
- demonstrate politeness with indirect words;
- show doubt about probability (e.g. likely), frequency (e.g. how often) and quantity (e.g. how much);
- express caution;
- separate the idea from the writer (e.g. The data suggest gas prices are going down);
- show modesty by under-exaggerating.
Why Teach Hedging?
Understanding how to hedge is an important skill in classes that teach academic writing where the objective is to help students meet rigorous standards. In less demanding classroom settings, hedging helps students by introducing them to new words, phrases, and sentence patterns which they can use as models in their own development. Finally, there is a possible crossover benefit with oral communication.
In Korea, where I live, ESL students often use the word “maybe” to hedge an idea or a fact. It’s often used incorrectly and many times causes doubt at the wrong time. Here is a simple dialogue that typifies those situations:
- Rob: Where is Hyun-chul? Is he coming to class today?
- Student: He is coming to school right now, maybe.
- Rob: Grrrrr.
Common Hedging Techniques
Most ESL students have had a few lessons in adverbs of frequency. These lessons teach words like always, usually, sometimes and rarely. Many of these words can be used to hedge an idea when talking about how often something happens, but they are not suitable for other ideas, like caution, quantity, probabilities, indirectness or modesty.
Here is a list of different ways to do hedge:
1. Modal verbs (e.g. may, might, can, could, would)
- It will rain tomorrow. — It might rain tomorrow.
2. Adjectives (e.g. possible, probable)
- Gasoline prices will increase next month. — An increase in gas prices next month is probable.
3. Adverbs (e.g. probably, usually, possibly, perhaps, likely)
- I will be late for dinner. — I will probably be late for dinner.
4. Introductory phrases (e.g. The data suggest …, It can be concluded that…, It appears that ….)
- There is life on Mars. — It appears that there is life on Mars.
5. Lexical verbs (e.g. assume, believe, suggest, seem)
- Your answer is wrong. — I think your answer is wrong.
6. Nouns (e.g. assumption, possibility, indication)
- There’s no way she will pass the job interview. — There is a possibility that she won’t pass job interview.
In addition, several techniques can be used in combination.
- That is a bad idea. — I think that might be a bad idea.
Hedging Around the World
The study of hedging in English started in the 1970s. (Riekkinen, 2009) In a study of fuzzy logic, George Lakoff stumbled on the idea that some words and phrases intensify fuzziness (or vagueness). He called these lexical items hedges and assembled a short list of hedge words and phrases (e.g. sort of, kind of, more or less, and in one sense) though he recognized it was incomplete. Following his work, linguists have discovered that hedging serves far more uses than making ideas vague.
Hedging is evident in many languages though the techniques and reasons are not always the same (Hinkel, 2006). In Chinese, for instance, hedging is often accomplished through ambiguity; textual meaning is inferred by the reader as writers avoid expressing thoughts directly. In Korea, hedges soften claims to minimize disagreements through subtly and a reliance on a shared understanding of the context. In Japanese, hedges are commonly used to express the probability or possibility of future events.
Download Worksheets: Hedging Exercises
Download the worksheet. The questions help ESL students improve writing skills by learning how to hedge ideas with a variety of techniques.