When spell-check dictionaries hit word processors, proper spelling entered more people's daily consideration. Eventually, tools for automatically checking grammar changed people's daily experience of language yet again. This morning, I heard a report on KPCC about a new plugin called “Just Not Sorry” for Gmail that adds a third item that can now be marked on text: hedge words. For instructions on using the plugin, go Just Not Sorry - Google Chrome Plugin.
Hedge words are words that limit the all-inclusiveness of an otherwise absolute statement. For example, ''Dogs are awesome” makes a universal claim about all dogs, whereas “Mostdogs are awesome” speaks about canine tendencies without claiming that absolutely all dogs must fit the description.
Similarly, hedging can be used to make personal statements such as “I personally think all dogs are awesome, though I understand why people don't always feel the same way" or "Other dogs may be great, but only mine is awesome!"
Just like the use of the word hedge in landscaping, the proper use of hedge words can produce a very specific and detailed picture of your work.
In another sense, hedges function like caution tape at a construction site. They allow us to stay within areas where the data is more solid, which also keeps us out of dangerous territory where our conclusions might be hazardous or insufficient.
Though I described Google's plugin as marking hedge words, it was actually specifically designed for a sociological or behavioral purpose: to help women in business settings write in a more assertive manner. But it can be used by anyone. Given that APU's email is run by Google, you can add it to your account as well. Then, in one stage of your editing, you can copy and paste your essay text into the body of an email draft in order to use Google's plugin to detect (some) common hedges.
Beyond Google's plugin, though, the concept of hedging is also very useful in academic writing. Hedging is reserved for specific actions in academic texts (so we should avoid using it other ways).
Example hedge words:
by Daniel Roberts
To craft strong sentences, we must give our verbs power and our nouns clarity, placing both of them at the beginning of the sentence. If we really let this rule sink in, we can see that the verb dominates the central meaning of our sentences. The noun, after all, only shows a detail about how the action of the verb was performed. It identifies the source of the verb's action, so--in a very real sense--it modifies the verb. Nouns play a subordinate role to that action of the verb.
Why does most writing advice warn against passive verbs? Because the verb is the sun at the center of the solar system that is the sentence. Nouns might be Jupiter, providing a major rotational mass, but they are, nevertheless, not the center of gravity for our sentences! With a passive verb, the solar system doesn't hold together, and our sentence flies apart in as many directions as there were words in that sentence.
To observe some verbs in action, let us look at one of Jesus' parables. The Parable of the Obedient and Disobedient Son gives words to our instinct that action is more important than identification. In this parable (found in Matthew 21:28-32), Jesus tells us of two sons, both of whom were told by their father to work in the family's vineyard. One said he would, but then he didn't actually perform the work. The other said he would not, but he then repented and actually did the work. This entire story revolves around verbs: asking, promising, failing, repenting, and working. In fact, this parable is far from the only story that hinges on actions. Just as stories are driven by verbs, so is powerful text!
Because the verb is so important, we can fall into the mistake of trying to prop up weak verbs with their closest modifiers in the predicate: the adverbs. If you read some writing advice, you might think that even using an adverb once in your paper would make the enlightened reader scream and run away. To some critics, adverbs are vile, distasteful, and disgusting. They are not, in reality, quite as bad as all that. Exaggeration might make for entertaining reading, but it is not going to give us the best tools for improving our editing.
Occasional use of adverbs, in and of itself, is just fine. If they are not overused and if they add relevant detail, they can be used judiciously. For our editing process, though, adverbs give us one huge advantage: They allow us to detect potentially weak verbs very quickly. How exactly? Well, most adverbs end in -ly. Most of them also do not occur at the end of a sentence. Thus, we can include a specific step in our editing process. Performing a text search (using ctrl-f on a PC or ⌘-f on a Mac) for ly (and a space after it) can help us quickly move through the adverbs that we used and that might signal weak verbs. Check each one to see if another verb would capture the meaning of your existing verb and help you eliminate the adverb. If not, see if you can change the adverb into some other phrase to provide the information in a more powerful manner.
Example: Smith (2010) carefully studied...
This example phrase could be changed in several ways.
(1) The simplest is to cut the adverb, because studied is a strong, clear verb that already implies the exercise of careful attention.
(2) Another is to draw a key term from the kind of data analysis performed: Smith (2010) compared...
(3) Finally, we can add details about the method of study to show the care involved: Smith (2010) eliminated possible false correlations by controlling for...
Each adverb you encounter will need to be evaluated individually, but I guarantee that this strategy will help you make some quick improvements to any text. Now, why not go try it out?!
One of the most harmful and most problematic writing choices and actions is to double a term and use two words to show a concept or idea, especially and particularly when the two words or terms are similar and hard to tell apart. I can hear you all asking now...“Wait...what did you just say?” Let me repeat it, but this time let me write it more clearly: One of the most harmful writing choices is to use two words to show an idea, especially when the two words are similar.
At best, the reader will feel we are being wordy. At the worst, the reader will be lost in trying to puzzle out the nuances of our meaning.
Now, don't get me wrong! Using more than one word in a description can be worthwhile. If the differences between the words used allows you to describe a broader range of relevance, that list might be absolutely necessary. The editing concept we are examining today only occurs when the two words are similar. When the words are different, this problem does not occur. For example, when we say “the fire department is ready to respond at any time, day or night,” the combination of those two opposing terms shows that the readiness extends to all extremes.
The opening example of this blog entry was intended not only to give examples of these unclear dual statements but also to show how they can be even more damaging when several of them occur close together. In our attempt to be more detailed, many of us use these dual structures in our drafts. This is fine, as long as we remove them during our editing. Unfortunately, dual statements can be hard to detect. As the proud parents, we know the minute differences between our babies...but the reader will have a more difficult time understanding the intention behind each word.
As a strategy for examining our document for dual wordings, it is useful to use the find command (ctrl-f on PCs and ⌘-f on Macs) to search for the word “and.” This will not identify all dual structures in your text, but it gives you a different way to strengthen your text. Why not try it out with your next project? Even better...why not pull out an old paper that you know didn't get edited to its strongest possible form and see if this trick would have helped you!
The quest to add clarity through the details in a text can often result in our writing a large number of lists that end up cluttering our drafts. Our immediate instinct is to directly equate a greater number of examples with greater clarity. This is not always the final result, however, and we should carefully limit our list usage to those items which, by showing multiple examples, truly add to the reader's comprehension. The purpose of this particular blog entry is not to explore the factors that make the inclusion of a list more appropriate, but rather to explore one method of reducing a sense of over-listing: Most lists should be broken into pieces and formed into multiple sentences instead.
Let us consider an example in order to discuss some common guidelines.
Draft: “To correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness are all thing that we authors should spend sufficient time doing.”
That's quite a lot of detail, and the sentence containing it requires complex grammatical structures as a result. The first thing we will consider is that, generally, lists are stronger at the end of a sentence.
Edit #1: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness.”
The second thing we should notice is that there is a complex list structure that makes the grammar unclear to some readers unless they read it multiple times. The items we are ''ensuring'' present a list within our larger list of things done during editing. Given the previous guideline, we might expect that moving this subordinate list to the end of our larger list would be useful.
Edit #2: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, reduce wordiness, and ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
Admittedly, this is less awkward than the first version. However, splitting the subordinate list into its own sentence would be an even better option:
Edit #3: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
At this stage, examining the first sentence might show us that the list combines different steps of a document review. Whether you consider editing as a single step that moves from broad concerns like organization toward finer concerns like checking your citation accuracy or, alternatively, see these as separate steps, the items should be organized in time order to ensure better readability. Thus, correcting grammar errors should come after revision tasks like organization and completeness of the contained ideas.
Edit #4: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, correct any grammar errors, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
If the length of the paper and the level of detail are appropriate, I would also recommend splitting the items that group together more closely into their own sentences or clauses as well.
Edit #5: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time transforming our drafts into publishable text. We should revise to verify the clarity of our organization and confirm that we haven't left out any key details. We should edit to reduce wordiness, and we should proofread to correct any grammar errors. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
This fifth edit is 43% (19 words) longer than the draft. The clarity and readability, however, are immeasurably improved.