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Cautious or 'hedging' language in essays

30 January 2020

This lesson plan is adapted from my online course, Teaching Grammar for Business Essays. To see details of the course, please click here.

You could adapt the plan for other academic subject areas.

Please feel free to use this plan in any way that suits your classroom requirements. (You are welcome to copy and paste these web pages into a separate document for editing or printing purposes.) You may want to write some of the language on your board, or create a worksheet for your students, or project some material via computer. To access a Word version, please look under ‘Sample lesson plans’ on this page

The length of the lesson depends on how much material you decide to use. Its aim is to provide students, at a sentence level, with a range of language tools for hedging.

 

LESSON PLAN

Cautious or ‘hedging’ language in academic essays

Introduction

The use of cautious language, sometimes called ‘hedging’, is one of the most distinctive features of academic English. Your students have probably already heard of the term ‘hedge’ as a financial strategy that protects your investment against loss. It’s the same idea in language. You protect yourself by saying that an idea is probably correct, rather than certainly correct. That it’s a claim rather than a fact. What’s important is that your students have at their disposal a variety of linguistic ways of hedging.

So, in this lesson plan, I look at ways of teaching:

- the reason for using cautious language

- the role of verbs such as tend, could, and suggest

- passive verbs in cautious phrases

- cautious adverbs and adjectives

- cautious expressions.

Procedure in class

1. Start by finding out how much your students know about hedging. Show your students two sentences like this:

Item 1 (two sentences)

The Royal Dutch Shell Group was established in 1907.

Organizational change creates as many problems as solutions.

end of item

Ask your class how these sentences differ, not in meaning, but in type. With or without your guidance, they should be able to see that the first is a fact, and the second is an opinion, or ‘claim’.

2. Now ask them: what might be the problem in using the second sentence as it is in an essay?

The answer you’re hoping for is that the readers of the essay may actually know of a company where the process of change was absolutely smooth. Unlikely, but possible. But already these readers may be thinking that they aren’t reading an objective piece of writing.

3. So ask students how they could change that second sentence. This will give you an idea of their level of knowledge in the area of hedging.  Accept and write up any of the good ideas that your class gives you. Here are a few examples that you might draw your students towards, which exemplify the types of hedging that I’ll cover in this lesson plan:

Item 2 (hedged sentences)

Organizational change tends to create as many problems as solutions.  (using a cautious verb)

Organizational change sometimes creates as many problems as solutions.  (using a cautious adverb)

It can be argued that organizational change creates as many problems as solutions.  (using a cautious introductory phrase)

Organizational change, in many cases, creates as many problems as solutions.  (using a cautious expression)

end of item

4. Say that what you’ve done is to ‘hedge’ the claim, and explain the meaning of this term, as mentioned in the introduction. Before you move on, there are two more things you might want to do with this sentence. The first is to mention two common structures with the noun ‘tendency’. See if your class has come across them:

Item 3 (tendency)

‘Organizational change tends to create as many problems as solutions.’

Remodel this sentence using ‘there + tendency for’ and ‘have + tendency to’:

1.

2.

end of item

Here are the answers:

Item 4 (‘tendency’ answers)

1. There is a tendency for organizational change to create problems.

2. Organizational change has a tendency to create problems.

end of item

5. Secondly, there’s a quick classroom activity you may want to try, based on the same sentence. Ask your class as a whole why organizations sometimes decide they need to change, and what kind of changes they make. Then ask them to think of two or three examples of the sorts of problems that such change can cause. If a student gives you an unhedged opinion, encourage them by some signal, such as putting your hand up in a ‘stop’ gesture, to remodel it. If a student says, for example: ‘Staff do not know what their new roles are’, you could ask them to think again until they produce something like: ‘Staff may not know what their new roles are’.

VERBS

6. Let’s start the main part of the lesson with verbs. Show your students eleven useful verbs that can all have a hedging effect:

Item 5 (eleven useful verbs)

1. tend/appear/seem to + verb  (very common hedging verbs)

2. could, might, can, may + verb  (modal verbs that express probability: ‘could’ and ‘might’ are more hedged than ‘can’ and ‘may’; ‘can’ is the commonest)

3. suggest and indicate + that …  (more hedged than ‘prove’ or ‘demonstrate’)

4. contribute to + noun and helps to + verb  (less common hedging verbs, but both can express the idea that X is partly rather than totally responsible for Y)

end of item

Then get your class in groups or pairs to remodel these five sentences:

Item 6 (remodelling)

1. Resistance to innovation comes from two sources. (use tend)

2. A temporary change in the leadership of a team will produce interesting results. (use can)

3. The report states that a key market segment was ignored. (use suggest)

4. The deregulation of financial systems caused the financial collapse of 2008. (use contribute to)

5. Better distribution channels reduce the cost of the final product. (use help to)

end of item

Here are the answers:

Item 7 (answers)

Resistance to innovation tends to come from two main sources.

A temporary change in the leadership of a team can produce interesting results.

The report suggests that a key market segment was ignored.

The deregulation of financial systems contributed to the financial collapse of 2008.

Better distribution channels help to reduce the cost of the final product.

end of item

7. Next, show your students a group of verbs that are normally used in the passive after the preparatory subject ‘it’, to hedge statements at the beginning of sentences or clauses:

Item 8 (verbs in the passive)

These first three all suggest that the argument may not be strong:

It can/could be argued that …  

It has been argued/suggested that … 

It is (or has been) claimed/said that … 

 

It is believed/thought that … (suggests a stronger argument)

It is (widely) accepted + that … (suggests the strongest argument)

It is reported that … (often used in reference to published reports)

It is estimated that … (often used with statistics)

end of item

Then you could take three claims and ask students to hedge them, using one of these phrases.

Item 9 (hedging claims)

80% of urban Chinese households have invested in equity.

A fall in unemployment boosts consumer confidence in the economy.

Internet retailing is still in its infancy.

end of item

The answers are a matter of opinion, but I would suggest that estimated would suit the first, that there is a strong argument in the second, and perhaps a weaker, or more contentious argument in the third:

Item 10 (possible answers)

It is accepted that a fall in unemployment boosts consumer confidence in the economy.

It is estimated that 80% of urban Chinese households have invested in equity.

It could be argued that internet retailing is still in its infancy.

end of item

ADVERBS

8. You could begin with a warm-up activity to get your students thinking about the meaning of some of the most useful hedging adverbs. Show them an alphabetical list and ask them, in pairs or groups, to add the adverbs at the top to the categories below them:

Item 11 (adverbs in categories)

Add these adverbs to the appropriate categories below:

possibly, arguably, usually, occasionally, approximately, probably, rarely, often, apparently, frequently

1. probability adverbs:

perhaps,

2. frequency adverbs that hedge the idea of ‘always’:

sometimes, normally,

3. frequency adverbs that hedge the idea of ‘never’:

hardly ever, seldom,

4. other common modifying adverbs with a variety of meanings:

relatively, typically,

end of item

Here are the answers:

Item 12 (answers to adverbs in categories)

1. probability adverbs:

perhaps, possibly, probably

2. frequency adverbs that hedge the idea of ‘always’:

sometimes, normally, usually, often, frequently

3. frequency adverbs that hedge the idea of ‘never’:

hardly ever, seldom, occasionally, rarely

4. other common modifying adverbs with a variety of meanings:

relatively, typically, arguably, approximately, apparently

end of item

Students will be familiar with most of these adverbs, but it may be worth underlining the meaning of relatively, arguably and apparently:

Item 13 (relatively, arguably, apparently)

relatively = in comparison with other things; used before adjectives in a similar way to fairly, quite and rather

arguably = it could be argued that/i.e. ‘there may be some doubt’

apparently = it appears that/i.e. ‘at first sight’

end of item

9. Now get your students into pairs or groups, and ask them to hedge the following sentences, using the words in brackets. Tell them to use a mid position for the adverbs, just after auxiliary verbs, or just before main verbs, e.g.:

Item 14 (examples of mid-position adverbs)

Organisational change is often problematic. 

Organisational change often creates as many problems as solutions.

end of item

Here’s the exercise:

Item 15 (adding hedging adverbs to sentences)

1. Local shops will register a decline in trade when a supermarket opens in their neighbourhood. (use normally)

2. The process of ‘deskilling’ the workforce to allow for automation was a consequence of the scientific management strategies applied during the early part of 20th century. (use arguably)

3. The senior management team lost control of the company’s strategic vision. (use apparently)

4. The cognitive processes involved in making a purchase are limited, but need to be studied by the consumer analyst. (use relatively)

5. Start-ups do not use major market research companies because they are small enough to approach customers directly for their views. (use rarely)

6. The key component of an advertising campaign will be the message that a company wishes to convey to the potential customer. (use probably)

end of item

And here are the answers:

Item 16 (adding adverbs to sentences: answers)

1. Local shops will normally register a decline in trade when a supermarket opens in their neighbourhood.

2. The process of ‘deskilling’ the workforce to allow for automation was arguably a consequence of the scientific management strategies applied during the early part of 20th century.

3. The senior management team apparently lost control of the company’s strategic vision.

4. The cognitive processes involved in making a purchase are relatively limited, but need to be studied by the consumer analyst.

5. Start-ups rarely use major market research companies because they are small enough to approach customers directly for their views.

6. The key component of an advertising campaign will probably be the message that a company wishes to convey to the potential customer.

end of item

ADJECTIVES

10. Let’s move on. As far as adjectives are concerned, there are a number of structures that can be used to hedge the idea of certainty in the future. Structures with ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ are particularly common. Show your class this list:

Item 17 (adjective list)

1. Ways of hedging ‘X will happen’:

It is possible that X will happen

It is probable/likely that X will happen

X is likely to happen

2. Ways of hedging ‘X will not happen’:

It is unlikely that X will happen

X is unlikely to happen

end of item

Now ask your students to hedge these two claims, using the words in brackets:

Item 18 (hedging claims with ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’)

If staff are unsure about their roles, their performance will be affected. (be likely to)

Levels of cybercrime will not decline in the foreseeable future. (It is unlikely that)

end of item

Here are the answers:

Item 19 (hedging claims with ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’: answers)

If staff are unsure about their roles, their performance is likely to be affected.

It is unlikely that levels of cybercrime will decline in the foreseeable future.

end of item

EXPRESSIONS

11. Finally, it’s worth mentioning to your students that there are also a number of expressions that writers use to hedge what they say. To see if your students are aware of these, ask the class to try and complete the gaps in these three examples.

Item 20 (hedging expressions)

1. The decision to enter the US market was, on b_________,  the company’s most serious error.

2. As a r_________, investors in stocks and shares should spread their risks as much as possible.

3. One reason why the largest technology companies are able to make decisions quickly is that, in most c_________, a considerable portion of their voting shares is held by their founders.

end of item

Here are the answers:

Item 21(hedging expressions: answers)

1. on balance

2. as a rule

3. in most cases

end of item

And here is a short list of expressions:

Item 22 (list of expressions)

in some respects/to some extent/on balance

suggesting that there are other factors to consider

as a rule/in principle

= used to hedge generalisations

in most (or many) cases

= suggests that there may be exceptions

end of item

Expressions like these can sometimes be helpful but they’ve been a bit over-used, so you may want to point out to students that they can sound like clichés.

PRACTICE

12. Now that students have a good range of hedging devices, you may want to try a classroom activity to give them some practice.

Item 23 (hedging activity)

1. Get the students into an even number of groups - two, four or six, for example - with each group forming a pair with a partner group.

2. Every group should now prepare a series of unhedged claims or opinions in the areas of business that they are currently studying. The number of claims depends on how much time you have available, but the focus should be on students coming up with three or four good ones.

3. Once a group has the agreed number of unhedged claims, they should check these with you, and then exchange them with their partner group. The aim now is for groups to hedge the claims they have just received, using a variety of the features they have studied.

4. When this has been done, you can listen to the hedged claims that groups read out, and write some useful examples on the board.

end of item

and end of lesson!

If you’d like to look at my publications in the area of academic grammar, please click here.

Best Wishes,

Ken