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Hedging language

In the video on the previous step, people were giving their opinion on a controversial question. You may have noticed that the people used a lot of tentative language in their answers – this is very common in spoken English and is called hedging language.

Let’s look at some examples:

No, I think it should be, maybe, limited.

There are two examples of hedging language in the example above. Can you spot them?

First of all, the speaker makes clear that this is opinion, rather than fact by using the phrase I think. We can achieve the same effect by starting a sentence with any of the following:

I feel

It seems to me

I believe that

It might be that

The word maybe makes the sentence even more tentative.

The word maybe occurs frequently in the young people’s responses to the questions on the previous step, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect to find it, for example:

There has to be hard evidence that they are maybe committing or threatening to commit certain terrorist crimes.

It seems strange to have the word maybe alongside a phrase like hard evidence, but in spoken English, sentences like this are not uncommon!

Speakers often state their opinion, but then go on to “hedge” – to make some concessions to the other side of the argument. Have a look at this example:

But when it goes to corporal punishment, that …there should be a law about that but then again, it’s up to the parents.

The speaker begins by saying that there should be a law about corporal punishment (the right of the parent to discipline the child with physical punishment), but then adds that it should be the parent’s choice. Then again is an informal way of saying on the other hand. Here’s another example of then again:

I don’t think it’s right, but then again, they can’t stop you, exactly.

Finally, some of the shorter answers are also very tentative. Look at this answer to the question about whether the state should be able to make laws about how we discipline our children.

To an extent, I think.

This speaker thinks the state should – but will not commit himself to the idea totally. To an extent means that you think something is partly, but not completely, true.

So, why do we use hedging language in English? Well, we mainly use hedging language to sound polite when we are expressing our ideas about things.

Can you think of any other examples of hedging language?

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Exploring English: Magna Carta

British Council