Image courtesy of Windell Oskay

It is funny how things change as you get older. When I was younger, I swore I would never be a teacher. Both of my parents were teachers and I actually thought they were good at their jobs, but the idea of teaching sounded boring to me. So what did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be an inventor. I had this box of old mechanical and electrical components I had scavenged from things I would find around the house and I would attempt to build things from them. My dad even went so far as to buy me a 6V lantern battery as a christmas present one year. It was only one of many unique gifts my parents gave me over the years. Funny thing was, I thought the presents were great.

One day, I decided to solder some random resistors and capacitors together to see what would happen when I plugged them in. Poof. A quick flame and lots of smoke. Oops. Well, at least I didn’t burn the house down. I had no idea that the little coloured bands on the side of the resistor held any relevant information. Nor did I grasp the concept of what a capacitor did. I just took what I thought were relevant parts and assembled them in a way that I thought would work.

For many of my English language students, writing works in the same way. They often piece together formulaic words and phrases that they feel should work in a given situation and PRESTO, you have a sentence that sounds like it was made up of stock words and phrases. Hmmm. Something isn’t working here. Grammatically it is good. Spelling is perfect. Meaning is mostly correct. So what’s wrong?

This is the reason behind a study done by Milton and Hyland (1996) using a collection of essays from students in the UK who were native English speakers (NS) and from university students in Hong Kong who were non-native speakers (NNS). The authors were looking at the use of lexical forms to express doubt and certainty. Somewhat surprisingly, both the NS and NNS students used these lexical forms roughly the same amount, around once every 55 words. What was even more enlightening was how they were used. Here is a short rundown of the results:

  • NNS students used will twice as much as NS students.
  • NS students used would twice as much as NNS students.
  • NNS students used may and think far more than NS students.
  • NS students used perhaps and often far more than NNS students.
  • Of the single lexical terms used, two-thirds of the usage came from only five words.
  • NNS students who graded highly were more likely to use words and phrases associated with doubt and certainty than those who graded lower.
  • NNS students tended to use phrases and words of certainty far more than NS students who tended to use probability more.
  • NNS students used 300 different intensifying expressions compared to only around twelve commonly used by NS students.
  • The use of hedging by NNS students was mostly used to convey less conviction, where as NS students used it “to suggest the limit of academic judgement”.
  • NNS students tend to overuse connecting words to express addition.
While the data collected was interesting for me, it has caused me to think about how this could be used in the EAP classroom. Milton and Hyland warn against making assumptions based on the data since there are more factors that need to be considered. For most of these students, this type of writing is in response to what is expected from the teachers in their own culture. Also, taking this information and simply exposing students to the differences does not address the problem of misusing the phrases and words. As the authors stated at the beginning of the article, students need to balance the knowledge claim together with their stance on correctness while keeping their audience in mind. This ‘dance’ needs to be taught together, not as separate units. For now, I think I will try to expose my students to more authentic material and help them notice the differences in writing about doubt and certainty instead of having them use “memorized decontextualized phrases”.

There is more to this article than I am able to address in this single post, but that just means I will have to revisit this again some time in the future. For now, I would like to hear from you. Do you have any suggestions about dealing with this issue with your students?


Milton, J. and Hyland, K. (1996). Assertions in students’ academic essays : A comparison of English NS and NNS student writers. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology LANG Conference Papers. Retrieved from http://repository.ust.hk/dspace/handle/1783.1/1045

5 thoughts on “Hedging

  1. another great post!

    have you read this post on similar issues? http://linguisticpulse.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/linguistic-diversity-in-the-classroom-part-2-multilingualism-and-academic-writing/

    it distinguishes between english language +users+ and english language +learners+ which i think can be more helpful than native speakers and non-native speakers

    for example it recommends teachers to hone up on basic grammar knowledge to help english learners as they find it complex, compared to english users who may need help on grammar related to academic register (which the article asserts that english learners may find relatively simple!)


    1. Thanks, Mura. I hope the post didn’t come across as NS vs. NNS. It was simply meant to show the differences that lie in the writing done by these two groups. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe strongly in the need for NNS teachers and the strengths they bring to the classroom. I also agree that NS teachers need to be prepared more in regards to grammar and other structural components. The problem lies in the social part of the language. Those who have been immersed in it (NS or NNS) understand the differences in the use of hedging as a form of understanding and also of academic writing.

      The distinctions between NS and NNS came directly from the article. I was simply using the information that the authors gave. The complexities of the use of users and learners may fit better, but this is what the authors chose to use. For the most part, even that separation could be divided up even more if you take academic language into consideration.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Just last week I had a lesson on hedging with my class of multilingual graduate engineering students. I emphasized that demonstrating the capacity to evaluate your claims is a key part of academic work and analytical thinking. However, now that I have introduced the idea and done some focused practice, I am thinking about how we will take this to the next step–for the week ahead we will be using sample slides from oral academic presentations that the students have developed and we will be deconstructing these slides to see whether the claims are being qualified appropriately.

    Other ideas are most welcome!! Great post.

  3. I agree with Saskia that it’s one thing to raise students’ awareness about the strength of their claims – for example by asking questions such as ‘How sure are you about the claim?’, ‘What criticisms could potentially be levelled at the claim?’ – but what’s much more difficult is then explaining appropriate hedging language to express levels of confidence or tentativeness.

    Modal verbs, in particular, are such slippery customers because they can have totally different effects depending on context and that’s something that’s very difficult to convey to a learner.

    The best that I’ve come up with is to look at plenty of examples of how ‘expert’ users (both student and published academic writers) use different hedging language and what effects it has. It’s one of those areas of language that’s definitely more about ‘feel’ and familiarity than it is about rules and fixed formulae.

    I’m also quite interested in looking beyond the more obvious hedging language at how other vocabulary choices affect the impact of a claim, but that opens up a whole other can of worms … !!

  4. Great post, and interesting points everyone. So many factors come together to make hedging tricky to both learn and teach. As was mentioned above, there’s the analytical thinking aspect being able to put forward your evaluation of a claim. Especially for students new to “the academy”, there’s the issue of expertise and authority–who has the right to make a claim in the first place? Cultural differences in argument structure and style exposed through a contrastive rhetoric approach, coupled with the simple fact that much hedging is done through modals, which as we know can pose particular problems for those whose L1’s don’t have them, further compounds the issue. Phew! I definitely think that mastering hedging is the sign of an expert academic writer.

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