Welcome to Zealandia: academic hedging language in action

Pub quiz and trivia fans take note: we may soon have to add Zealandia to the list of known continents. A recent article published by the Geological Society of America argues in favour of categorising the pacific landmass below New Zealand as a new continent. Their paper is engaging even for a non-specialist, and it also provides an excellent demonstration of how hedging language is used as a matter of course in academic writing.

The Zealandia landmass

Hedging language is used to ‘soften’ any certainties we want to express in academic writing. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding this language of uncertainty and doubt strengthens your academic standpoint by protecting it from being undermined. Let’s take a look at the first sentence of this article for a demo. If I have said,

we will have to add Zealandia to the list of continents.

this sentence could easily have been disproven. However, by saying

we may soon have to add Zealandia to the list of known continents.

I’ve largely protected my statement from counterargument.

Hedging also lets us acknowledge that we are working with the best information currently available, but that this will likely be superseded in the future. Regarding their own conclusions, Mortimer et al. state,

This is not a sudden discovery but a gradual realization; as recently as 10 years ago we would not have had the accumulated data or confidence in interpretation to write this paper.

This type of language is so prevalent in academic writing that most native speakers hedge automatically, but non-native speakers would do well to pay attention to how (and how frequently) it is used. For instance, the GSA Today article is peer reviewed, the abstract clearly states the authors’ thesis, and their well-structured argument is convincingly supported. Nonetheless, the whole text is peppered with various types of hedging language:

adverbs relatively thick… more correctly… almost never…
introductory verbs it seems unlikely that… possibly suggests that…
adverbial phrases To our knowledge,
lexical verbs It is assumed that… first proposed
adjectives many authors…
nouns interpretation
double hedges It is generally agreed that…
if clauses [descriptions are] misleading if they omit Zealandia.

Once you start to look for examples of academic hedging, you will realise just how widespread it is in English. Of course, you can overuse hedging, but in my experience few non-native writers are in danger of this (at least initially).

As ever, the best way to develop a ‘feel’ for hedging is to actively read academic writing, noting and reflecting on the language used. If you’d like a more specific list of terms to use in your own writing, I recommend this section of Manchester University’s Academic Phrasebank.

Do you actively reflect on the hedging in your writing? Does hedging exist to the same degree in your language? Let me know!