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Hedging in Scientific Writing – Strategies & Techniques

Medical & Scientific Writing

Hedging in Scientific Writing – Strategies & Techniques

The Oxford dictionary defines the word hedge as, ‘a fence or boundary formed by closely growing bushes or shrubs’. In writing, hedging refers to the use of cautious language to make noncommittal, cautious or vague statements. It allows authors to make decisions about their viewpoint on a particular subject or the strength of the claims that they are making.

In addition to several other reasons, hedging leaves open the option of retreat for the writer if required. In scientific writing this technique is used by writers to differentiate between ‘claims’ and ‘facts’, to safeguard themselves from chances of error and to report the limits of their findings. Although hedging is legitimate and commonly practised in scientific writing, it is important for writers to be aware of their hedges and to avoid using them in excess.

Likely, arguably, possibly etc are some commonly used hedge words by writers in the opening statements and conclusions of their reports. Statistics reveal that they account for approximately 1 percent of total words in scientific articles.

Use of qualifiers (modifiers), the passive voice (point of view), and unnecessary quotation marks are three commonly used hedging techniques (strategies) employed by writers.

Qualifiers (Modifiers): They are words that modify or limit the meaning of other words. They must be used justifiably in academic writings to limit the scope of a statement. Commonly used qualifiers are:

Adjectives: apparent, consistent with, few, many, most, possible, presumed, probable, putative, several, some, supposed

Adverbs: about, apparently, arguably, in general, largely, likely, more or less, mostly, often, perhaps, possibly, presumably, probably, rather, somewhat, unlikely, usually

Nouns: appearance, indication, inference, likelihood, possibility, probability, suggestion, tendency, to my knowledge

Verbs: aim, appear, assume, could, indicate, infer, intend, might, presume, propose, seem, seen as, should, speculate, suggest, suppose, tend

Using only qualifiers that are critical for the accuracy of a sentence increases the clarity and strengthens your argument.

Passive voice (point of view): When written in the passive voice, sentences focus on the receiver or product of the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action.

A noncommittal form of the passive voice occurs when writers do not name themselves (with the personal pronouns I, we) or other scientists as the performers. Such type of passive voice often begins with the word It (e.g., It was possible…; It has been found…; It was not known…; ).

The person performing the action is not named in such sentences, and the reader is compelled to assume who did what, or who said what. Unless the document demands the use of the passive voice, it must be avoided and all performers must be identified by writing in active voice.

Unnecessary quotation marks: Many authors make excessive use of quotation marks to emphasize certain expressions. Quotation marks force the readers to draw certain conclusions and readers usually find them irritating. Many style guides consider them unnecessary.

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