is a protective boundary of dense shrubbery. In writing,
Authors allow for this opening in their statements and conclusions for several reasons: to report the limits of their findings, to protect themselves from the risk of error, and to convey modesty.
Cautious language has a legitimate and important place in scientific writing, although authors need to guard against using it to excess.Qualifiers(modifiers), thepassive voice, andapologetic quotation marksare three commonly used hedging techniques.
Qualifiers are words that modify or limit the meaning of other words. Qualifiers may be added justifiably to scientific writing to limit the scope of a statement.2
Hundreds of words and phrases can be used alone or in combination to express approximation, probability, or doubt. Common examples include the following:
Adjectives:apparent, certain, consistent with, few, many, most, possible, presumed, probable, putative, several, some, supposed
Adverbs:about, apparently, arguably, fairly, in general, largely, likely, more or less, mostly, often, perhaps, possibly, presumably, probably, quite, rather, somewhat, unlikely, usually
Nouns:appearance, indication, inference, likelihood, possibility, probability, suggestion, tendency, to my knowledge
Verbs:aim, appear, assume, can, could, estimate, indicate, infer, intend, may, might, presume, propose, seem, seen as, should, speculate, suggest, suppose, tend
When usedin moderation, qualifiers temper a researchers certainty about a method or observation.
However, double, triple, and quadruple synonyms are unnecessary (e.g.,may be possible;seems to suggest,rather likely to indicate,may be seen as rather likely). Similarly,successive hedge wordspile up within a sentence, depleting it of its strength and meaning:
This sentence can be revised to minimize the number of qualifiers:
A possible cause is the tendency of patients with diabetes to develop retinopathy.
To strengthen your argument and increase clarity, limit the number of qualifiers in each sentence to only those necessary for accuracythe remaining qualifiers will then do their job well.3
Sentences written in thepassive voicefocus on the receiver or product of the action. They include a form ofto beand the past participle of a verb. Abyphrase to name the performer follows or is implied (e.g.,The results were reported by Thomas et al.).
A noncommittal form of the passive voice occurs when authors fail to name themselves (with the personal pronounsI,we) or other researchers as the performers. This type of passive often begins with the wordIt(e.g.,It was apparent…;It has been noted…;It was decided…;It is known to be…).
In these sentences, the person performing the action remains unnamed:Whoreported the results?To whomwas it apparent? The reader is forced to guess who holds the view.
Passive-voice sentences have their place when the performer is less important than the action. For example, an author may decide to write in the passive voice in the Methods section (seeThe Value of the Passive Voice).
However, passive constructions allow authors to hedge about theidentityof the performer:
In this sentence, the passive voice protects the authors from the risk of uncertainty. However, this deviceincreases ambiguity(Whoconcluded?). The reader may find it especially difficult to sort out who did what when authors use the passive voice to describe their own work and that done by other researchers in the same paragraph.
Unless you have good reason to write in the passive voice, use theactive voiceto identify the performer (e.g.,We concluded that…). Doing so will improve the clarity and readability of your writing.
Some authors like to add quotation marks toemphasize expressionsthat are being used for irony or in a nonstandard or special sense:
Also calledapologetic quotation marksorscare quotes, these marks are applied to tell the reader that an expression is not the authors and is not being used in the usual way.
The author hedges by adding quotation marks rather than trusting readers to draw their own conclusions or to recognize the irony or special use (e.g., see thetitleat the top of this page).
To avoid irritating your readers, use apologetic quotation marks sparingly or not at all. Many style guides consider them unnecessary.4-6
Devices for hedgingin writing, not gardeninginclude qualifiers, passive voice, and quotation marks.
These devices are useful when applied judiciously. Toreduce ambiguityand improve readability:
The Psychologists Companion: A Guide to Scientific Writing for Students and Researchers.
4th ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 2005.
Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences.
2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 2000.
Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al.
AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors.
10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.
Questions or comments about this writing tip?Contact me onlineand Ill be happy to help.
For information on scientific and medical editing, please visitScience Editing Services.
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