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Avoiding Multiple Hedge Terms

Some tips to help you take a stronger position in your manuscript by avoiding certain terms that make you sound unsure.

As introduced in another editing tip, words and phrases that display uncertainty or tentativeness in academic writing are sometimes called ‘hedge terms.’ These terms (including suggest, imply, and putative) indicate opinion or hypothesis, not fact. In scientific publications, it is rare to prove a particular conclusion, so the use of hedge terms is commonplace. However, it is important to avoid using too many hedge terms, which could make the author sound unsure of her findings, even if the conclusions are strong.

As a basic rule, try not to include more than one hedge term in a single sentence. Below, we provide some examples of sentences featuring multiple hedge terms as well as alternative phrasing to maintain the tentative nature of the writing without sounding too unsure.

  • Our results suggest that Protein X might catalyze a reverse reaction.
    • Protein X’s activity is a conclusion based on the results; including ‘suggest’ is sufficient to show that the conclusion is not proven, but highly likely. One could write “Our results suggest that Protein X catalyzes a reverse reaction” instead.
  • These new compounds may potentially reduce the side effects of current treatments.
    • In this sentence, the terms may and potentially are effectively redundant; both imply uncertainty. Instead, consider “These new compounds have the potential to reduce the side effects of current treatments.”
  • The existence of degradation products implies that contaminating proteins appear to be present.
    • Here, both bold terms reveal the uncertainty of the conclusion. The sentence could be rewritten as “The existence of degradation products implies the presence of contaminating proteins.”</li>

On a related note, the use of the term candidate also indicates uncertainty. Therefore, you do not need to include additional hedge terms in most cases.

  • These four genes are possible candidates for knockdown to reduce Protein X levels.
    • Calling the genes candidates for knockdown implies that they have not yet been shown to affect Protein X. Unless the author is specifically noting that they are not yet even considered candidates, there is no need for both terms. Try “These four genes are candidates for knockdown to reduce Protein X levels.”

We hope that this tip will help you strengthen your academic publications. Have questions about rephrasing a sentence? E-mail us. AJE wishes you the best of luck!

Special thanks to Deborah Frank, PhD, for suggesting this topic.

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