Academic writing is known for its use of qualifiers – usually words which tone down the claims that are made. We academics know it is impossible/incredibly difficult to establish a generalisable result though research, and our writing signals this difficulty through the use of words like – may, suggest, indicate, could, might, seem, suspect, infer. And because we know that there is relationship between the methods we use and our results we often signal the limitations of our research through words such as partially, approximately, quite, generally.
Hedges – for this is what these kinds of toning-down qualifying words are called – are a necessary part of scholarly work and writing. They signal that we know that the work we have done is good, but it’s not all that there is to see, say and do on our topic.
But too much qualification makes a writer sound very tentative. Too many hedges altogether in one place can make academic writing difficult to read. Getting to the point is like chewing cotton wool. Too many hedges can also leave the reader with a well-why-did-I-bother-with-this-then feeling.
However, there are qualifiers that work in the opposite way to hedging. Rather than tone down claims, these words are called Boosters because, well, they add a sense of certainty and importance to our writing. Boosters include will, show, find, determine, confirm, know, clearly, particularly, it is clear that, the fact that, establish, demonstrate, conclude. Other terms such as evidence, striking effect, the importance of, of most importance, of particular interest also help to emphasise significance.
Linguists who study academic writing (for example, Ken Hyland) say that boosters are most often used in the introductory and concluding sections of papers, theses and books. This is because the introduction and conclusion are where the writer wants to influence the reader. When a writer wants to signal, at the very outset, the worth of what the reader is about to encounter, a booster is used. A booster or two strengthens the warrant for the paper. Boosters can promote the novelty, value and importance of the research and writing too. And boosters are the academic writer’s way of emphasising that there is a strong relationship between the results they have presented and the interpretation and claims they make.
Boosters are a linguistic means of presenting the newsworthiness of research. They are intended to persuade. Boosters say – you can trust this, this is good stuff, this matters. Take this conclusion as an example. It comes from an evaluation of the National Writing Project’s College Ready Writing Program for teachers and students – an intervention designed to improve the writing of school students before they enter university/college.
This evaluation of teacher professional development is one of the largest and most rigorous to find evidence of an impact on student academic outcomes. It found that CRWP affected student outcomes on a particularly complex task—writing an argument supported by reasoning and developed through the use of evidence from source material. This type of argument writing has been identified as critical to college and career readiness and is central to new academic standards for English language arts and literacy. Given that the evaluation found consistent implementation in more than 20 districts across10 states, the findings SUGGEST that CRWP CAN BE effective in diverse settings.
You can see from the words I have underlined that the evaluators are using boosters to make strong claims about the relationship between the intervention and the outcomes – they assert that their results matter because their research was large and rigorous and it found evidence about something complex critical and central. The reader is positioned by this boosterism to understand the significance of the study. However, after all this boostering, the writers then make a ‘suggestion’ (I’ve put this in capitals). The programme ‘can be’ effective – this is not a definitive claim by any stretch of the imagination. But even though the writers hedge their final So What, their ‘suggestion’ for action has been made very persuasive by their previous use of boosters.
Boosters are a kind of rhetorical assertiveness. They signal ‘Look at what I’ve done and how important it is’. For this very reason, it is sometimes difficult for doctoral researchers to use boosters, perhaps because they feel anything like the expert that is implied in writing compelling reasons to, sufficient evidence for, it is crucial to. Occasionally, doctoral and early career researchers can inappropriately use boosters, making over claims for the work that they have done. But mostly, conclusions in theses and early papers in particular suffer from too much hedging.
It is helpful for doctoral and early career researchers to find out the ways in which hedges and boosters are used in their discipline – and to read some papers specifically looking to see how qualifying is done. Understanding how these linguistic tactics work means that they can then become an explicit resource in an academic writing toolkit.
Why not try playing with hedges and boosters? It is useful to make checking the introduction and conclusion for the use of hedges and boosters a regular part of your revision strategy. Looking for the way in which you have used hedges and boosters allows you to focus specifically on the level of authority you are assuming through your writing. It allows you to check whether you have your discipline-appropriate level of caution and assertion. You can see whether rationale for the research, the results and claims work together in a convincing way.
And understanding that hedges and boosters are used in introductions and conclusions can help you to ‘whistle a happy tune’ – that is, to write as if you are feeling more confident than you actually are. When you use the right mix of linguistic strategies you can write as if you are the expert in your field, even if you don’t feel like it. When you get the hedges and boosters working together, they tell your reader that you are a credible and trustworthy researcher who knows what they are talking about.
Read more in this post on writing with authority.
Photo credit: John Train, FlickrCommons
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