Why it pays to hedge your bets in English

Posted by on July 01, 2009

© Mario - Fotolia.comHedges are essential for communication in English. Hedges are what keep Britain ‘Great’. Without hedges the social fabric of our nation would be torn apart; there would be constant brawling in post office queues across the land; co-workers would smash office chairs across each others backs; the banking system would crumble; our government would implode; editors would sob uncontrollably in the streets.

Yes, I said hedges. Do not underestimate their power. Of course, I’m not referring to ‘a line of bushes or small trees growing close together around a garden or field’, but thanks anyway Macmillan Dictionary, old pal – nor anything to do with investing money in high risk, high reward financial ventures. Of course not, that would be silly. I mean linguistic hedges.

Here are some common ones, taken from a coursebook that I’m copy-editing:

Well…
The thing is…
Maybe/Possibly…
You know…
I think…
It could be…
It seems like/as if…

Has that perked your privet? Here are some more:

By the way…
Apparently…
Perhaps…
I mean…
Depends…
slightly / more or less / rather / somewhat
like / kind of / sort of

Native speakers plant these little hedges in their speech all the time, but this seemingly insignificant, meaningless chatter is very hard to master, even for an upper-intermediate level student. The phrases are just not that intuitive; they don’t trip off the tongue.

Wikipedia nicely defines hedges as ‘intentionally non-committal or ambiguous sentence fragments, mitigating devices used to lessen the impact of an utterance’, and suggests that they are really a form of euphemism. They certainly do help tongue-tied Brits to challenge someone without getting punched. Take a look at this hedgy statement:

Oh, by the way, you know this morning when I overheard you telling the CEO that you thought that I had the intellectual capacity of a squashed apricot, well, the thing is, I sort of thought that was a little bit, kind of, well, a teensy bit out of line. I mean, depends of course, but perhaps, I don’t know, you could maybe have been slightly more, you know, well, a bit nicer…although, come to think of it, I do rather like apricots actually

Take away the hedges, rephrase slightly and you get something like this:

This morning I overheard you telling the CEO that you thought I had the intellectual capacity of a squashed apricot. I thought that was rude and deeply unprofessional. However, I want you to know that I do like apricots.

More direct, perhaps more effective, bit less hedgy, equally mad. This brings me on to two key objections to hedging:

Objection 1: Hedging is just a pretentious linguistic term for sloppy language and should not be encouraged.

Not true; hedges are a vital part of speech, they add nuance and subtlety to utterances, they help awkward British men declare their undying love to American women who in their later years will go on to advertise wrinkle cream. I call to the witness stand… Hugh Grant!

Objection 2: Hedges, like tag questions, are indicative of unassertive, wussy behaviour and are used by women more than men (who generally just grunt and point).

Oooh, well, now I think that might be true, don’t you? I mean, women can talk a bit like that, can’t they? That’s quite controversial though, isn’t it? Oooh, that Hugh Grant’s lovely, isn’t he?

This link between hedging and unassertiveness was first proposed by linguist Robin Lakoff in the 1970s. She argued that hedges and tag questions were key features of ‘women’s language’ and indicated a lack of confidence. Hmmm. I can see we’re opening a big can of gender worms here… Listen, sister, here’s a bit of assertiveness for you: it may well be true that women are more hedgy than men, (although how you would ever prove this conclusively is another matter) but this isn’t a weakness, oh no, it’s because they are just better at having a ‘conversation’.

And on that bombshell, I think I’d better quickly retreat into a hedge… it could be that women, on the whole, are better conversationalists… possibly. There, that feels better. You see, it pays to hedge your bets.

Comments (5)
  • Excellent article! It’s been a pleasure to read…

    Posted by Laura on 2nd July, 2009
  • […] This article from the Macmillan Dictionary Blog suggests that hedge words may be pretty vital to communication and us all getting along. […]

    Posted by Is Your Speech Week? Or Courteous? « 500 Words on Words on 30th July, 2009
  • Hedging is useful in business too, according to this bit of research: the power of powerless speech

    Ace blog, BTW 🙂

    Posted by dan on 31st July, 2009
  • Hope to have the pleasure to read other articles like that too!

    Posted by Ezaide on 31st October, 2009
  • Who says a lack of confidence is a weakness? You yourself argue that hedging (a reduction in assertiveness) is essential to functional communication.

    Posted by David Mears on 10th June, 2014
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