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Hedging

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English

You have probably heard the phrase “hedge your bets.” Hedging is what you do when you want to play it safe, and this goes for your essay-writing as well. However, playing it safe is rarely the right tact in an essay. In fact, when badly mishandled, hedging can devolve into a logical fallacy and destroy your paper.

Hedging definition

In writing, hedges are words or phrases that express uncertainty.

It will probably rain today.

“Probably” undercuts the much stronger claim that “it will rain today.” The word “probably” expresses uncertainty about the claim.

Although hedges are not strictly wrong, they are not strong arguments because they are uncertain. This is why they make sense for casual claims about the future, but they do not make much sense for formal claims in an essay.

Hedging words, devices, and expressions (list)

Here is a list of hedges commonly employed:

  • Believe

  • Conceivably

  • Presumably

  • Perhaps

  • Probably

  • Possibly

  • Maybe

  • Seem

  • Likely

  • Suggest

  • Think

  • Looks like

  • Appear to be

  • It could be that

  • There is a chance that

  • It is possible that

  • Although there is some doubt that

  • Although not definitive

Hedging in your essay, with examples

Your essay comes in three parts: the introduction, body paragraphs, and the conclusion. Here is how hedging should and should not be used in each area.

Hedging in your essay introduction

You should never hedge in your thesis statement. A thesis statement must be provable and disprovable. If it contains a hedge, it becomes a moving target. Here’s an example:

Hedged thesis: One would think books should not be banned.

This is weak, because how does one prove what "one would think"? This is also very general. Here is a better thesis:

Improved thesis: To protect the freedom of writers and others, books should not be banned by the US government or any other party.

This thesis clearly explains that no books should be banned, not by anyone, not at any time.

Your thesis statement should be as specific as possible. Hedged phrases are always less specific than unhedged phrases because hedges create ambiguity.

Hedging in your essay body paragraphs

Hedges should not feature in the body paragraphs of your essay. Hedging in your body paragraphs is often a sign that your evidence is weak.

Hedged evidence: Based on this passage, Mr. Woolwick probably doesn’t like to be disturbed while in bed.

Right, well, what does “probably” prove? Probably not much. If you are not confident enough in your evidence to include it without hedges, then you shouldn’t include it.

Hedging Hedge StudySmarterThere's a time and place for everything, flaticon.

Although for many students, the inverse problem is true. Many students will present perfectly good evidence, and then hedge it just to be on the safe side. Don’t do this! Let your evidence speak for itself. You want to be confident in your essay.

Unhedged evidence: Based on this passage, Mr. Woolwick values his privacy while in his bedchambers - to the point he will become aggressive when confronted thus.

Hedging in your essay conclusion

This is the one time for you to pull out your sheers and get to work on those hedges! In your conclusion, you will discuss other avenues for study and chance at future developments surrounding your topic. In this capacity, you will likely employ hedges to extrapolate how such things might affect your conclusion.

Your goal here is not to hedge your entire essay because you missed a lot. Your goal here is to explain in good faith how your conclusions might change, based on future research and developments. Ideally, this “future research” is not something you could have studied at the time you wrote your essay.

Although this sector of genetics has remained vastly unchanged over the last 25 years, there is a possibility that these conclusions could be at least partially refuted if “gene 404” is successfully mapped.

In a timed essay, use hedges in your conclusion to fill holes. There is no way you can cover an entire topic in 40 minutes, so use hedges to acknowledge any potential shortcomings in your arguments. Again, don’t employ hedges as an excuse to write a weak essay. Employ hedges to explore how a topic can be larger than one small essay.

Hedging as a logical fallacy

Hedging on your essay is usually weak. However, it can tip into the territory of logical fallacy, especially when employed in your body paragraphs, which you should avoid at all costs. Using hedge words in a hedging fallacy can implode your essay.

A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

Here’s how hedging can become fallacious:

The hedging fallacy concedes an argument using a hedge word to create a new hedged argument, but then dismisses the hedged argument and returns to the original (previously conceded) argument.

In other words, hedge words can be used to make something appear like a concession when it is actually not. There are steps to this logical fallacy.

Hedging fallacy example

In the following example, follow the highlight. The pink highlight is the hedged answer (it features a bolded hedge word), and the purple highlight is the key dismissal.

The hedged answer is a revised claim that the fallacious party makes. It features a hedge word or phrase to soften the original argument. This hedged answer is disingenuous, however. The key dismissal is the indicator that the fallacious party is hedging. It is a phrase that dismisses the hedged argument and refers the other party back to the original argument, despite the fallacious party having conceded it already.

Hedged answers are easy to dismiss in this way because they are not strong and definitive. Middling claims are easier to shove aside than bold ones.

In the following example, Person A will be the fallacious party, while Person B will be the other party, their interlocutor.

Person A: Soccer is a no-skill sport.

Person B: How can some athletes consistently perform so much better than others, then? Take Lionel Messi, for example. He’s received a record seven Ballon d’Or awards.

Person A: Sure, so at the highest level there might be some skill involved, but still.

“So at the highest level there might be some skill involved” is the hedged answer. It is a revised claim. “Might be some” is the hedge phrase that seems to shrink Person A’s stance.

At this point, all seems to be on track. It seems like the argument is continuing logically. However, that all changes when Person A introduces the key dismissal, the utter classic: but still. “But still” is short and unassuming, but the hedging fallacy impinges upon it. “But still” indicates that Person B should refer to Person A’s original argument, despite the fact that Person A has conceded their original argument.

There are some obvious problems with Person A’s logic.

The problem with the hedging fallacy

Here’s how hedging is illogical:

To concede an argument is to surrender that argument. Thus, to concede an argument and then to use that argument without surrender is fallacious.

In our example, if Person A had ended the discussion before adding “but still,” that would not have been a logical fallacy. In this event, Person A would have lost the original argument but left the door open for further arguments.

Here is a way that Person A could have responded to Person B while remaining logical:

Sure, so at the highest level there might be some skill involved. I’ll concede that, but let’s talk about the lower levels. The barrier to entry for soccer is much lower than a sport like baseball, which requires a player with more developed mental and physical skills.

This argument probably won’t hold up, either, but at least Person A is trying to be logical. However, since the definition of “skill” is subjective, this argument will likely conclude with both parties agreeing that the skill it takes to play soccer is a matter of opinion.

It is not fallacious to search for the truth. It is okay to revise a claim. It is not okay to revise a claim superficially, and then continue arguing the original claim.

Hedging Soccer StudySmarterKnow when it's a fact and when it's your opinion, flaticon.

Hedging - Key takeaways

  • A hedge is a word or phrase that expresses uncertainty.
  • Never hedge in your thesis statement, and only rarely in your body paragraphs.
  • Use hedges in your conclusion to cover a lot of ground and speak to the future.
  • Hedges can be used purposefully or accidentally in the hedging fallacy.
  • If you identify a hedged (softened) claim that is dismissed and replaced with the original claim, that is a hedging fallacy.

Hedging

It is using hedge words, such as "probably" and "possibly," to soften the impact of a claim.

In the claim "it will probably rain today," probably is a hedge.

Believe, conceivably, presumably, perhaps, probably, possibly, maybe, and likely. 

To soften a claim or to express uncertainty about it. However, they can also be used deceptively, like in the hedging fallacy.

These phrases act like hedge words. An example would be, "There is a chance that..."

Final Hedging Quiz

Question

Which is not a hedge word?

Show answer

Answer

Absolutely

Show question

Question

Which is not a hedge word?

Show answer

Answer

Undeniably

Show question

Question

Which is not a hedge phrase?

Show answer

Answer

Despite there being

Show question

Question

Hedges are words or phrases that express _____.

Show answer

Answer

Uncertainty

Show question

Question

If you have a great idea, can you hedge your thesis statement?

Show answer

Answer

No. You should never hedge your thesis statement. The claim must be clear and unambiguous. 

Show question

Question

"It appears that Group B is not compliant." 

Does this claim contain a hedge?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, "appears."

Show question

Question

"Group C certainly provides the data."

Does this claim contain a hedge?

Show answer

Answer

No. This claim is definitive.

Show question

Question

Hedging in your body paragraphs is often a sign that your evidence is _____.

Show answer

Answer

Weak

Show question

Question

In your body paragraphs, if you are not confident in your evidence, is hedging a good option for that evidence?

Show answer

Answer

If you are not confident enough in your evidence to include it without hedges, then you probably shouldn’t include it.

Show question

Question

Many students will present perfectly good evidence, then hedge it just to be on the safe side. Is this the safe, proper call in an essay?


Show answer

Answer

No. Let your evidence speak for itself. You want to be confident in your essay.

Show question

Question

What is the hedging fallacy?

Show answer

Answer

The hedging fallacy is conceding an argument, using a hedge word to create a new hedged argument, but then dismissing the hedged argument and returning to the original (previously conceded) argument.

Show question

Question

Is it okay to revise a claim by hedging it?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, on its own. This is the search for the truth. It is not okay to revise a claim superficially, then to continue arguing the original claim.

Show question

Question

Regardless of how they are shaped, hedged arguments always make a concession then what?


Show answer

Answer

Return to the original conclusion or claim.

Show question

Question

In an essay, should a quick wit cover for a lesser argument?

Show answer

Answer

No. It is better to be cautious and lack a quick answer than it is to employ a logical fallacy in order to stall your opponent.

Show question

Question

Where do hedge words appear in the hedging fallacy?

Show answer

Answer

In the revised claim that is summarily dismissed.

Show question

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