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March 27, 2014

Over the Hedge

Daisiesby Stefanie

I am as guilty of hedging as anyone here, if not more so. I am not, by nature, a decisive person. Couple that with work for almost two decades in scientific (Strike 1) writing (Strike 2), and I can tell you that the “facts” known today do not necessarily match those of yesterday.

Oh, oh, look what I did there! My first hedge! Using quotation marks to soften or make ironic something that does not need such treatment should be avoided.

And there, I just did it again! The words should be take the sting out of avoided, don’t they? But being to the point is helpful here. Avoid using quotation marks to hedge. There, that is much clearer. Also avoid using words like should, could, sometimes, may, and others to hedge on a point that does not need hedging.

Does not need hedging? Is that another hedge? No. The thing about scientific and scholarly writing is that hypotheses are always being tested. Theories are pushed to their limits with different experiments, be they physical or thought experiments, which are then reported in articles and books. Hedge I have yet to see an article or book end with the words “no more research is needed on this topic.” Sometimes experimental results are inconclusive. Sometimes their meaning is not clear under current paradigms. Sometimes the results are as clear as the nose on your face. When you are writing about your research, state confidently what you are confident about and qualify what you are not as certain of (or what you are certain is not certain; see my use of the word sometimes in the three previous sentences). Take time to think about what elements of your article fall into each category and present them accordingly.

When talking about other authors’ work, take your linguistic cues from them if you are equally convinced of the accuracy of their claims and conclusions. For example, let’s say I’m (a) in a fictional world and (b) writing about the Ark of the Covenant. As part of the research for my paper, I read an article in Archeology Today in which some guy named Henry Jones, Jr., says unequivocally that he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem. Maybe I’ve met Dr. Jones at a conference and I feel confident that he’s a stand-up guy, or maybe I’ve read his other work and that has all seemed legitimate, or maybe his article contains so many facts and credible sources that I’m convinced he’s telling the truth. When I am mentioning Dr. Jones’s claim, which I believe, in my paper, I am not going to say, “Jones (1963) suggests that the Ark of the Covenant was found in 1936” but “In an article published decades ago, Jones (1963) announced that in 1936, he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem.” In fact, the second example works even if I do not believe Dr. Jones’s claim: He did make that announcement in his 1963 article (he did in my fictional world, anyway). The point is, in this situation, there is no reason to hedge. “Jones (1963) found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936” would be a way to uncritically report this key point from Jones’s article. If I take a more skeptical approach to Dr. Jones’s article, I can express that, too: “Jones (1963) claimed to have found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936, but no other evidence supports this assertion and, in fact, the U.S. Government vehemently denied its alleged involvement.” I have clearly stated Jones’s claim, and I have countered that claim with some big grains of salt, to painfully strain a metaphor.

If the authors of your source articles are not committing to definite conclusions, though, follow their lead. If Henry Jones, Sr., writes, “I have reason to believe that Alexandretta is the starting point for the path to the Holy Grail, but I have yet to find conclusive proof,” it is misleading to report, “Jones (1937) reported Alexandretta is the city in which the Holy Grail journey starts.” It is not up to you to clean up someone else’s hedging. In fact, it’s best if you report the uncertainty. To put it in perspective, the difference between “I think the parachute is packed correctly” and “the parachute is packed correctly” is huge. Which parachute will you choose to strap on?

Hedge only if you must. Otherwise, be as decisive in your writing as your sources and circumstances allow.

Photo: Falombini/iStock/Thinkstock.

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