96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions

The Uncertainty of the Future

The Uncertainty of the Future

Mentions of lists, predictions and doubtful truths can be made vaguer so they are less likely to be proved untrue

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TYPES OF HEDGING

The post before this (95. Hedging 1) explains how statements sometimes need to be made vague for their accuracy to be guaranteed, and that hedging is the name often given to this practice. The point is also made that different statement types have to be hedged in different ways, with the result that the language of hedging is itself quite variable. Two types of hedged statement are analysed in that previous post – quantifications and generalizations – and at least three others are suggested to exist. This post is about these three other ways of hedging.

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HEDGING OF LISTS

Lists in a text are usually associated with what I call a “list name” – a more general expression that sums up all of the words in the list (see 55. Listing 2: Full Sentences and 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Listing). List names do not have to be put into words, but they often are. Here is an example:

(a) The primary colours are red, yellow and blue.

In this case the list name is exactly matched by the list: red, yellow and blue are the full list of the primary colours. The list can be called “complete”. However, not all lists completely match their list name like this. Here is one that does not:

(b) Various European language types can be identified, such as Romance, Slavic and Germanic.

This list does not exactly match its list name because it leaves out some of the possibilities, for instance the Celtic, Basque and Greek language types. It is an example of what might be called an “incomplete” list.

List-giving is an area where hedging can occur because often uncertainty exists about whether or not the list is complete. This may be because short, complete lists are quite rare in professional writing; many lists are very long, or are suspected of having unknown members. Consider again the list name European language types. Most people can name the best-known language types, such as the Romance languages, and probably one or two lesser ones like Greek; but few can say with certainty what the full list is.

The normal way to hedge when you are uncertain whether or not a list is complete is by means of “incompleteness-showing” language. There are at least three main kinds. The first kind is the same language that introduces examples (see 1. Simple Example-Giving and 33. Complex Example-Giving). The words such as in (b) are of this kind. However, hedging and simple example-giving do not always coincide; examples can be given for other reasons than for hedging, for example to prove a point without any uncertainty regarding the unmentioned members of the list.

Secondly, incompleteness can be shown by means of highlighting expressions like notably, especially and in particular, where the mentioned members of the list are suggested to be somehow more important than the unmentioned ones. Here again, hedging is not the only use but, given the frequency of uncertainty, it is a common one.  More about this kind of incompleteness language is in the posts 54. Listing 1: Incidental and 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists.

The third major way of showing incompleteness involves the list name rather than the list itself. Compare the following with (b) above:

(c) The main European language types are Romance, Slavic and Germanic.

The incompleteness of this list is shown by the words the main before the list name. Other expressions that do the same thing are the major, the most important, the best-known and some (of the). The last of these indicates that the incomplete list is of randomly-chosen examples; the others show its parts are special in some way.

Instead of some, you can also use a number word without thethree instead of the main in (c). It is important not to have the with number words in hedging because it suggests the list is complete (see 55. Listing 2: Full Sentences). 

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HEDGING OF PREDICTIONS

Predictions are common in professional writing (see 147. Types of Future Meaning). They can hardly ever be made with certainty – the famous American Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789 that nothing in the future is certain “except death and taxes”. Such uncertainty about the future makes predictions an obvious candidate for hedging. The main language for hedging predictions is modal verbs and adverbs. Consider this unhedged prediction:

(d) Humans will travel to Mars in the future.

The modal verb will is a typical means of making predictions, but unfortunately it also implies certainty. If we wish to allow for the unpredictability of the future, we can replace will with either the modal should (showing over 90% certainty), or may (around 50% certainty), or might (around 30%) or could (around 10%). We could also use the verb BE (or SEEM) (UN)LIKELY (10/90%).

Alternatively, sentence (d) can be hedged by means of an adverb placed after will. Possible adverbs in descending order of meanings from near certainty to near uncertainty are probably (or most likely), perhaps, possibly and conceivably.

For more about predictions, see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1, item #11.

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HEDGING OF POTENTIALLY FALSE STATEMENTS

The post before this (95. Hedging) highlights how generalizations can be hedged to guard against their being too broad. However, generalizations can be wrong in another way, which requires a different kind of hedging. They can be the total opposite of what is true. Consider this:

(e) A high-fat diet shortens human life.

This is a highly controversial statement: some experts agree and some disagree. As a result, it is an opinion rather than a fact (see 107. The Language of Opinions). In order to acknowledge the possibility of it being wrong, a suitable hedging word is not a frequency one like normally, but a truth-commenting one like apparently (= “looks true”). A similar meaning is carried by arguably, conceivably, seemingly, probably, possibly and in all likelihood. Alternatively, you can add a full verb, like SEEM or APPEAR, or a “modal” verb: may to suggest the truth is 50% likely, might if it is around 30% and could for 10%. For a more detailed discussion, see 107. The Language of Opinions.

This kind of hedging is applicable to non-general statements as well as to general ones. An example is:

(f) The Minoan civilization seems to have been destroyed by a volcanic eruption.

The words seems to have show how a past tense verb can be written in a hedged form with SEEM. The meaning here is that evidence exists for a volcanic eruption being the cause of the Minoan disaster, but such a theory might be completely wrong, the cause being something entirely different.

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