Using tentative language

Share
Share

Presenting a credible argument or claim

In academic writing, it is important to be cautious in your claims unless they are proven or established beyond doubt or debate. This is because:

  • it is unlikely that you have examined all possible evidence, and there may be a convincing case for an alternative conclusion
  • the results of individual studies are rarely conclusive and findings may later be shown to be inaccurate, based on false assumptions, or interpreted incorrectly
  • what is ‘known’ can change as new discoveries are made
  • data is often open to various interpretations

Tentative language therefore plays an important role in presenting a convincing argument or claim. You should indicate:

  • your level of confidence in your conclusions
  • the strength of the evidence on which you are basing your claims

Consider the differences between the two sentences below:

  • Diet was an important factor in the health of the respondents.
  • The evidence suggests that diet was an important factor in the health of the respondents.

The first sentence presents the findings with absolute certainty. Such a claim would need to be supported by very strong evidence. The second sentence is a hedged claim, indicating that the evidence is not sufficient to make an outright claim, or that it could allow for other interpretations.

Hedged claims can be made by qualifying quantity, frequency or probability.

Verbs: Appear, Suggest, Indicate; Modals: may/might, can/could, will,would; Adverbs: Possibly, Probably, Likely

Activity

Make the following sentences into hedged claims by selecting the tentative language from the options below to fill in the blanks. Click the blue arrow to move to the next sentence.

Your choice of vocabulary and hedging words conveys your degree of confidence. Consider the differences between the three statements below:

  1. The nervousness displayed by some of the placement teachers may have been due to the presence of observers.
  2. The nervousness displayed by some of the placement teachers was apparently due to the presence of observers.
  3. The nervousness displayed by some of the placement teachers was clearly due to the presence of observers.

Only Statement 3 conveys a sense of complete confidence, indicating that it is based on sufficient and convincing evidence.

Activity

Refer to the three statements above and answer the two following questions.

Avoiding over-generalisations

Compare the two texts below.

Example 1

Chinese are Buddhist. They go to the temple five times a year. Buddhists live simple lives and give money to charity.

Example 2

Many Chinese are Buddhist. Practicing Buddhists go to the temple about five times a year, depending on how devout they are. Generally, Buddhists try to live simple lives and to give money to charity when they can.

The second statement uses qualifiers (such as generally) and quantifiers (such as many) to avoid over-generalisation, allowing for exceptions and variations in degree. Notice how this paints a more nuanced and realistic picture for the reader.

Quantifiers and qualifiers

Quantity

Frequency

Probability

Adverbs/Adjectives

Verbs

all/every/each

most
a majority (of)
many/much

enough/sufficient

Some
several
a number (of)

a minority (of)
a few/a little
few/little

no/none/not any

always

usually
generally
on the whole

frequently
often
regularly

sometimes
occasionally

seldom
rarely

never

Certainly
Definitely
Undoubtedly

Clearly
Presumably
Probable/probably
Likely

Conceivably
Possible/possibly
Perhaps
Maybe
Uncertain

unlikely

Is/are
Will
Must/have to

Should
Would
Ought to

May
Might
Can
Could

Is/are not
Will not
Can not
Could not


Acknowledging exceptions and limitations

Qualifying your claims and acknowledging exceptions or limitations reduces the likelihood of the reader raising those issues to criticise your argument or dispute your findings. Qualifiers and quantifiers can be used, along with more direct statements, to do this.

Examples

  • Whilst the findings of the study could be applied in most instances, there were some important exceptions. In particular, it was found that people with food allergies did not benefit from the changes to their diet, and in fact in some cases experienced negative reactions.
  • The argument that sport is good for your health is hard to dispute, with the exception of instances when it leads to serious injury. For the majority of participants, adventure sports like rock-climbing are very beneficial; however, for an unlucky minority such sports result in permanent injury or even death.
  • One limitation of the study was the relatively small sample size. For this reason, the findings cannot be generalized to the broader community based on this study alone.

Activity

1. Read the paragraph below.
2. Read again, identifying where tentative language is needed.
3. Drag and drop the number icon of the most suitable word or phrase from the list of hedging words to the appropriate position in the text. Each word and phrase can be used only once.