Unsure But Not Uncertain: A Look at Hedges in Language

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  • We don't always have all the answers, and that's okay. In fact, effective communication often involves acknowledging that very fact. This is where hedges come in.

What are Hedges?

Hedges, in linguistic terms, are words or phrases employed within a sentence, allowing speakers or writers to convey ambiguity, probability, caution, or indecisiveness regarding the remainder of the sentence, rather than asserting full accuracy, certainty, confidence, or decisiveness.

For instance, phrases like "sort of" or "kind of" are commonly employed as hedges to soften the certainty of our descriptions. These devices indicate that we're not entirely sure what we're saying is absolutely correct or complete. For example, instead of stating "His hair was long," we might say "His hair was kind of long" or "The book cover is sort of yellow" rather than "It is yellow." These examples illustrate hedges on the quality maxim, where we acknowledge a degree of uncertainty or approximation.

In conversations, we often preface our contributions with expressions such as:

  • As far as I know...
  • Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but...
  • I’m not absolutely sure, but...

These phrases serve as indicators that what follows may not be entirely definitive or certain, emphasizing that our statements are based on our understanding or perception rather than indisputable facts.

Moreover, hedges can function to introduce or occasionally even remove ambiguity in meaning and the typicality of a category member, offering flexibility in expression. Observe the following expressions:

    Original sentence without hedges:

  • "The car is fast."

    With a hedge introducing ambiguity:

  • "The car seems to be fast."
  • With a hedge removing ambiguity:

  • "The car is fast, but not as fast as some sports cars."

In the first example, the hedge "seems to be" introduces ambiguity by suggesting that the speed of the car might be subjective or open to interpretation. In the second example, the hedge "but not as fast as some sports cars" removes ambiguity by providing a comparison, clarifying that while the car is fast, it may not meet the speed standards of certain sports cars, thus offering a more precise understanding of its speed.

Additionally, we use hedges to convey our level of certainty or belief regarding a statement. We may indicate that what we report is something we "think" or "feel" rather than know, that it is "possible" or "likely" rather than certain, and that something "may" or "could" happen rather than it "must" happen.

For instance, consider the distinction between stating "Jackson is guilty" and "I think it’s possible that Jackson may be guilty." In the first version, we will be assumed to have very good evidence for the statement.

Examples in Action

Here are some everyday examples of hedges in use:

  • "The movie might be good, but the reviews haven't been great." (uncertainty)
  • "I would disagree with that statement, to some extent." (politeness & uncertainty)
  • "It seems like a good idea, but let's discuss the logistics first." (caution & encouraging discussion)

Different Types of Hedges

Hedges are a speaker's toolbox for navigating the world of uncertainty. They allow us to express ourselves effectively while acknowledging that we might not have all the answers. But how do these versatile tools work? Let's explore the different types of hedges:

  1. Epistemic Hedges: The Speaker's Compass

    Epistemic hedges deal with the speaker's level of knowledge or certainty about a proposition. Words like "perhaps," "maybe," "possibly," and "likely" fall into this category. They signal that the speaker isn't entirely sure if their statement is absolutely true, inviting the listener to consider other possibilities.

  2. Modal Hedges: Exploring Options

    Modal hedges encompass a range of expressions that soften the force of a statement by introducing modal verbs like "could," "might," "should," and "would." These hedges introduce ideas of possibility, obligation, or hypothetical scenarios, allowing for more flexibility and interpretation in the conversation.

  3. Attitudinal Hedges: Mind Your Manners

    Attitudinal hedges reflect the speaker's attitude or stance towards a topic, often conveying politeness, deference, or a desire to hedge for social reasons. Phrases like "I think," "in my opinion," "it seems to me," and "from my perspective" fall into this category. They help maintain a harmonious conversation by acknowledging the subjectivity of the speaker's view and promoting a collaborative exchange of ideas.

  4. Pragmatic Hedges: The Art of Smooth Flow

    Pragmatic hedges serve practical purposes in conversation, such as softening requests, making suggestions, or managing the flow of the conversation. Expressions like "if you don't mind," "perhaps we could," and "would you consider" fall under this classification. These hedges facilitate smoother interactions by respecting social norms and interpersonal dynamics.


Hedges are powerful tools for navigating the complexities of communication. However, overuse of hedges can dilute clarity and undermine credibility. To achieve the right balance between precision and politeness requires discernment and context-awareness. By cultivating an awareness of linguistic nuances and adapting our use of hedges to suit the demands of each communicative situation, we empower ourselves to communicate with clarity, diplomacy, and impact.

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  • References
    • Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics (chapter 4) Cambridge University Press
    • Marmaridou, S. (2010) “Presupposition” in L. Cummings (ed.) The Pragmatics Encyclopedia (349 – 353) Routledge

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