Verbal Hedge: Definition and Examples

In communication, a verbal hedge is a word or phrase that makes a statement less forceful or assertive. It's also called hedging. Contrast this with using adverbs to boost other words or be assertive and intensifiers, which amplify a term.

Degrees of Usefulness

Hedging can be as simple as saying "maybe," "almost," or "somewhat" in ordinary discourse. It can be useful in making a strong opinion come out in a polite professional manner, such as in, "I would argue that to some extent...

"​ On the other end of the extreme, in times of political controversy or during election season, the technique can seem to be used everywhere.

Linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes critically, "Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying, including almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue" ( "The Sense of Style," 2014).

However, as Evelyn Hatch notes, hedges may also serve a positive communicative function. 

"Hedges are not always the same as 'weasel words,' which temper the directness of a statement. (The two terms reflect a different point of view. 'Weasel words' is pejorative—we're trying to avoid responsibility for our claims. 'Hedges' qualify, soften, or make claims more polite.) The two examples that follow show how hedges can be used to let us 'weasel out' of responsibility for our statements.

'Perhaps Gould overstated his argument regarding an apparent weakness in Darwin's notes. 
'The data appear to support the assumption of significant differences between the two groups of students.'

"Hedges, however, also serve a ritual function. They may act like disfluencies in smoothing over a disagreement with a conversational partner.

'Maybe she just feels kinda blue.'

"In this last example, it is a simple matter to understand the locutionary force of the utterance—that is, what the sentence says. However, the illocutionary force of the utterance—what is intended by the utterance—is not clear unless context is taken into account." (​"Discourse and Language Education." Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Hedge Words in the Media

The Associated Press Stylebook cautions writers to use the hedge word "alleged" carefully, to note that a supposed action is not being treated as a fact, but not to use it as a "routine qualifier." For example, if something appears in a police record as having happened, it doesn't need to be hedged just because it's not known exactly who was involved.

Authors Gordon Loberger and Kate Shoup have seen it go overboard. "Writers and reporters for various media are increasingly sensitive to possible legal repercussions regarding the things they report. As a result, many of them, seemingly to protect themselves and their organizations, tend to overuse hedge words—that is, words that allow the speaker or writer to hedge on the meaning of his or her statement. As such, readers and listeners are subjected to such statements as the following:

'The alleged burglary occurred last night.
'The diplomat died of an apparent heart attack.

"Such hedge words are unnecessary if the police report indeed shows that a burglary occurred and if the medical report lists a heart attack as the cause of the diplomat's death. In any case, the second sentence above would certainly make more sense if it were written another way. (Besides, what is an 'apparent heart attack'?)

'Apparently, the diplomat died of a heart attack.
'The diplomat died, apparently of a heart attack.'" ("Webster's New World English Grammar Handbook." Wiley, 2009)