Thursday, March 18, 2010

Avoid using multiple hedges

I’ve covered the drawbacks of unintentional hedging: (1), (2), (3), (4). Using multiple hedges is even worse.

Example of a multiple hedge

In a recent interview, economist Doug Casey was asked if he thinks the United States is “headed” for “blood in the streets.” Mr. Casey, who is typically an exemplar of straight talk, uncharacteristically used multiple hedges in his answer:

“I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself coming to the conclusion that we may well be reaching such a point.”

Let’s take a closer look at that sentence. It consists of only 22 words, but it actually contains seven hedges. This may be a record.*

First hedge: “I’m sorry to say it” (he apologizes in advance for giving a pessimistic view).

Second hedge: “I find myself” (he distances himself from his own conclusion; he implies that the “I” who is sorry to be expressing these pessimistic thoughts is not the “myself” who has been thinking them).

Third hedge: “coming to the conclusion” (not “have concluded”).

Fourth hedge: “we may well be” (not “we are”).

Fifth hedge: “reaching” (not “at”).

Sixth hedge: “such a” (not “that”; “such a” has a skeptical connotation, as in, “Is there really such a thing as cow tipping?”).

Seventh hedge: “point” (implies that it will not be a period of bloodshed but only a point).

To give proper credit, I hasten to point out that Mr. Casey’s next sentence is more definite:

“I don’t see any way out, not without a lot of pain and turmoil, at this point.” (Only two hedges: “not without a lot of pain and turmoil” and “at this point.”)

The Takeaway: In your speech and writing, try to avoid using multiple hedges – unless you are using them deliberately for comic or satiric effect. Usually, multiple hedges will make you sound like you are temporizing. If you are uncertain, just say, “I don’t know,” or “I am not certain, but my best guess is [x],” or a similar expression.

*If the topic had been a scientific one, seven hedges would have been a record. See this passage from an interesting book on scientific language.

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