Pruning Hedges: Editing for Confidence
When hedging gets in the way.
By Karen Yin • March 15, 2016
When a writing style comes across as uncertain or apologetic, look for hedge words. Also known as cautious language, hedge words have an important role in academic, technical, and legal writing, where responsible writers want to limit meaning. In writing that can be less precise, words such as sometimes, almost, and usually weaken prose, deflate conclusions, and raise doubts about the writer’s authority.
According to Joseph M. Williams in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, hedges “give us room to backpedal and to make exceptions.” When mitigating becomes a tic, however, it serves the writer, not the reader. By freeing prose from this type of clutter, copyeditors can clarify the message and reveal its power.
Hedge words also include possibly, probably, partly, somewhat, maybe, might, perhaps, kind of, mostly, nearly, generally, could, and should—words that provide the writer a way out should claims be challenged.
If writers sometimes, generally, and maybe everything, they will be right, but their work will be unreadable.
In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker says, “There is an alternative slogan to Cover Your Anatomy: So Sue Me. A classic writer counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of [their] readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means ‘in general’ or ‘all else being equal.’” If writers sometimes, generally, and maybe everything, they will be right, but their work will be unreadable. Even if sentences are driven by vivid verbs, habitual hedging renders prose lifeless—especially when paired with weak words, such as just, think (that), and try (to). Instead of “It appeared that writers had a tendency to hedge,” the same idea can be stated with “Most writers hedge,” or simply “Writers hedge.”
Martin Cutts wasn’t being dramatic when he gave the Oxford Guide to Plain English’s section on hedge words the title “Conquering Fear.” Pruning hedge words judiciously makes language direct and confident.
Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.