Adding Words to Indicate the Limitations of Personal Knowledge
"Hedging Your Bets"
When we speak, we open ourselves to critique. People may disagree with us — they may dispute the accuracy of our words. This happens all the time — it's a normal part of conversation.
This is also true of academic writing. When we write, we make points. These points should be solid enough that someone can argue against them — otherwise, you're essentially saying nothing. However, unlike day-to-day conversation, an academic argument is supposed to be very, very complex. It's suppose to reveal the impossibility of absolute knowledge. When we write for a research audience, we are supposed to push the boundaries, exploring areas of information that may be unclear and under dispute.
Purposes of Hedging
Academic writers often use very precise language to indicate that knowledge is fuzzy. Specifically, responsible hedging:
- Is Humble: You indicate that the paper is not perfect because no human being knows everything.
- Acknowledges Others: You use outside sources, and therefore your writing indicates that not all knowledge is your own.
- Acknowledges Differences in Expereince: Your personal experiences cannot match the lives of all your readers.
- Acknowledges Differences in Opinion: All facts can be interpreted in multiple ways. This does not mean that all interpretations are correct — it simply means that you know of other interpretations.
- Narrows the Focus of Your Writing: You can't describe all of life in a single paper. Hedging, like Signposting, shows your readers what exactly you will focus on.
Examples of Hedging
"In my opinion..." or "I believe that..."
- This is an extremely common type of hedging.
- Since it's personal opinion, it can't be "disputed," per se, so it's technically "never wrong."
- Some writers use this to avoid doing actual research.
"As Source A explains..."
- This academic hedging is very important: it indicates the source of your information while differentiating your opinion from the opinions of your sources.
- If someone disagrees with your point, they must also disagree with your source. If your source is a well-respected scholar, then people will be reluctant to "nitpick" your points.
- Some writers simply use the "big name" sources for exactly that reason — to avoid criticism.
- Be careful to accurately share your source's point. If Source A gives a personal opinion, but then you put it in your paper as fact, that does not make it fact. That's an example of taking words out of context.
"It is generally accepted that..."
- This is a very common form of hedging — it appeals to the authority of the masses.
- This is easily misused. The idea that "everyone believes x" can actually be dangerous — it may support false or misinformed opinions, particularly in today's era of "filter bubbles."
- Rather than using this "general" hedging, it's better to use the more precise hedging below.
"For Americans living in suburban areas..."
- This type of hedging refers to your