HEDGING is a common linguistic phenomenon present in both written and spoken speech. It is a communicative strategy that results in the weakening of the illocutionary force of the statement that otherwise makes it sound rude, impolite or straightforward. 

The term hedge was introduced by G. Lakoff (1972). He characterizes hedges as words or expressions which are used to “make things fuzzier or less fuzzy” (1972: 195) and claims that they are used to attenuate the meaning of an expression (sort of, a little bit), or, on the contrary, to reinforce its certain characteristics (very, really, extremely).      

Brown and Levinson (1978) analyze the notion of hedges from the point of view of politeness (Speech Act Hedging). They first introduce the term “face threatening acts” and develop strategies of positive politeness, i.e. strategies that are intended to avoid giving criticism by highlighting friendliness and solidarity. Brown and Levinson confirm that hedges are capable of softening and reinforcement of an expression.  

Wright and Hosman (1983) are one of the first scholars who single out the difference between intensifiers and hedges. According to them, if hedges are capable of reducing the force of a statement, intensifiers, on the contrary, tend to increase it. This idea contradicts Lakoff’s perception of hedges, but today the notions of hedges and intensifiers are studied separately. 

Hübler (1983) studies difference between such notions as hedges and understatement. In his view, understatement deals with the propositional content of the sentence, whereas hedging focuses on the speaker’s attitude to the situation. 

Caffi (1999, 2007) analyses the process of mitigation – lessening the intensity or force of something unpleasant or attenuation of unfortunate effects on the hearer and introduces his own division of mitigating mechanisms (bushes, hedges and shields).

Since the 1980s linguists (Aijmer (1986), Kay (1997), Fetzer (2010)) have been much interested in the properties of individual hedges and begun to explore the use of hedges within different areas and genres such as political talk, scientific discourse, courtroom discourse, medical discourse, etc.  Nowadays it is commonly agreed that the use of hedges largely depends on the genre.


Further reading

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987.  

Caffi C. Mitigation. – Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

Fraser B. Pragmatic competence: The case of hedging.  – Boston, 2010. – P. 16–33.

Hübler A. Understatements and Hedges in English. – Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983. – P. 3–5.

Lakoff G.  Hedges: A Study in Meaning Criteria and the Logic of Fuzzy Concepts, Papers from the Eighth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, 1972, – 183- 228. Reprinted in: Journal of Philosophical Logic, 1973, 2(4), P. 458–508.

Wright, J. W., 11, &Hosman, L. A. Language style and sex bias in the courtroom: The effects of male and female use of hedges and intensifiers on impression formation. Southern Speech Communication Journal. 1983 – p. 137-152.

Alexandra Galkina