95. Hedging 1: Numbers & Generalizations

RAINING

Numerical and general statements can be made vaguer so they are less likely to be proved untrue

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NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF HEDGING

Quite often we hear or read something that is almost true but not quite, like this:

(a) The population of London is 8.3 million.

The number 8.3 million is actually an approximation. The exact number of people who live in London is changing all the time and is probably impossible to discover at any one moment. Often such inaccuracy is acceptable; but sometimes it is not and can bring blame on the writer.

A simple way to ensure the accuracy of (a) is to make its wording less precise, so that it refers not to a single number but to a range. There are various ways of doing this: adding the preposition about, for example, or the adverb approximately, or changing the last part to exceeds 8 million.  Ensuring the accuracy of statements by making them vague is commonly called “hedging”. This post and the next (96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions) are about different types of hedging and the language choices associated with them.

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THE HEDGING OF QUANTITIES

Quantities may need to be mentioned individually or as part of a wider data analysis (see 115. Surveying Numerical Data). Sentence (a) above contains a quantity (8.3 million) that in some situations might be denounced as inaccurate. The language that can be used to hedge quantities falls into the following main categories:

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1. Adverbs Like “Approximately”

The word approximately means “close to”. It suggests that the named quantity is perhaps the true one, or perhaps slightly exceeds it, or is perhaps slightly less.  Other adverbs like it include almost exactly, more or less, perhaps, probably (more precise than perhaps), roughly and virtually.

Additional adverbs have part of the meaning of approximately. Some say that the named quantity is a maximum possibility (at most, at maximum, no more than), others that it is a minimum (at least, no less than, no fewer than), others that it is more than the true one (almost, less than, nearly, practically), and others again the opposite (more than).

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2. Prepositions Like “About”

Prepositions that mean the same as approximately include about, around, close to and in the region of, as well as the informal something like and the abbreviated c. or ca. (see 130. Formal Abbreviations). Similar to at most are approaching, up to and the less formal going on for, while equivalents of less than and more than are respectively below and above/over. There is also the phrase in excess of.

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3. Adjectives Like “Many”

Exact number words can often be replaced by vague adjectives like high/low, huge/tiny, large/small, many/a few, various, numerous and several (also informal a lot of – see 108. Formal & Informal Words). Many, a few and several must go directly before their noun (e.g. has many people), but the others can be used either in that way (has a high population) or after the noun and separated by a link verb (the population is high).

The hedging use of these adjectives is also seen in introductions to a list by writers uncertain about the exact number of items in the complete list (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions and 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). Many can additionally make a statement less “sweeping” (see below). For advice on their use with a following of, 133. Confusions of Similar Structures (#1).

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4. Verbs Like “Exceeds”

A single verb equivalent of is approximately is approximates to. Instead of is more than we can say exceeds, surpasses or tops (all equivalent to more than).

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5. Other Possibilities

The adjective estimated can be used with a number to mean the same as approximately, like this:

(b) An estimated 80,000 spectators watched the final.

An article like an is always necessary; the noun that necessitates it – in this case thousand – is obvious when the number is spoken but is not visible in writing (see 67. Numbers in Spoken English). A similar usage is possible with a few other (non-hedging) adjectives, including huge, whopping, paltry and pitiful (see 115. Surveying Numerical Data).

One could also replace the underlined words in (b) with the single word some. This unusual use of some must always be pronounced like sum, not with the reduced vowel /∂/. The ability of common words to have an unusual meaning is examined more closely in the post 3. Multi-Use Words.

Nouns are also possible sometimes, principally in the phrases a maximum of and a minimum of.

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HEDGING THE BROADNESS OF GENERALIZATIONS

Generalizations are statements about multiple or enduring times rather than single or brief ones. They include most statements about classes of things (see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning). They run the risk of being inaccurate through being too broad. Examples are:

(c) Mammals live on land.

(d) Spain is warmer than Sweden.

Sentence (c) is too broad because it mentions too many mammals: all instead of fewer than all. The reason is the existence of mammals that do not live on land (whales and dolphins, for instance) – in other words, exceptions. Sentence (d) is too broad because it suggests Spain is always warmer than Sweden when on rare occasions the reverse is true. Statements like (c) and (d), which do not recognise the clear existence of exceptions, are sometimes said to be “sweeping”.

Sweeping statements in academic writing do not usually please tutors. However, even when no exceptions are obvious, there is often wisdom in avoiding the idea of “all” – or its negative equivalent “never” – because it might ultimately turn out to be sweeping. Very few all-referring statements are as safe to make as (e):

(e) Everyone will die.

The problem with most all-referring statements is that we can rarely be sure that what we have seen matches what we have not: just because every crow I have ever seen or heard of is black does not prove that every crow in existence is black.

In order to hedge a generalization so that it is not too broad, the following types of language can be used:

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1. Adverbs Like “Normally”

Excessively broad statements can be corrected by adding words like normally, which means “in nearly all cases”.  Doing this allows for the existence of exceptions but affirms their rarity. Words like normally are so frequently needed that English has developed numerous synonyms of it. They include usually, typically, mostly, ordinarily, generally, in general, on the whole, nearly always, in most cases, for the most part, mainly, in the main, broadly speaking, by and large, overall, all in all and as a rule (for a difference between pairs like generally and in general, see 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs). If it is never that needs to be hedged instead of always, one can say hardly ever or very rarely.

In some cases, “nearly always” may be considered too extreme, so that an adverb indicating a lower frequency is required. English does not disappoint in this respect, having adverbs for most subjective percentages. The following give some indication of the range:

AROUND 70%: often, frequently, much of the time, in many cases

AROUND 50%: sometimes, some of the time, in some cases, to some extent

AROUND 30%: occasionally, on occasion, in a few instances, to a small extent

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2. Adjectives like “Many”

In sentences like (c), where there is a general class name (mammals), an alternative to an adverb for making the statement less sweeping is an adjective that limits the meaning of the class name. Such adjectives mean the same as the adverbs – they just go with nouns instead of verbs. They are often the same ones that can also be used for avoiding inaccurate numbers (see #3 above). They include most, nearly all, very many, the majority of and a preponderance of, as well as indicators of lower-frequency like many, some, a few and very few.

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3. Verbs like TEND

The idea of “normally” can also be given to sentences (c) and (d) by adding the verb TEND (tend to live/tends to be). Alternatives to TEND are BE INCLINED (perhaps applicable mostly to people) and BE LIKELY. Lower percentages are often expressed by “modal” verbs like CAN (50%) and MAY (30% – see 51. Making Concessions with “May”).

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OTHER TYPES OF HEDGING

Some statements need to be hedged in case they are covering too few rather than too many possibilities – a different kind of hedging that needs to be done with its own special language. Details about it can be read in the post after this (96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions). Also considered there are predictions, plus statements that could be totally false rather than just too broad or narrow.

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