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Hedging and modality versus strident claims and the apparent absence of doubt

In everyday speech we talk about ‘hedging your bets’ when you reduce your risk of serious loss by placing money on at least two possible results, the principle being that the gain made on one bet will at least partially compensate for the loss made on another. The expression is then extended beyond the domain of gambling to all transactions or dealings in which one tries to be prepared for two or more outcomes. We also say that people hedge when they do not make a firm commitment or do not give a direct response, and in this case, the word has mildly negative connotations as it implies that our interlocutor is not being entirely straight with us.

When linguists talk of hedging, the word is stripped of its negative connotations and assumes the status of a technical term. For Bloor and Bloor, ‘Hedging is a linguistic avoidance of full commitment or precision. It is a vague but useful term covering a range of phenomena.’ This brief definition provides no information as to why people resort to hedging, and for this, we can turn to Machin and Mayr: ‘Hedging can be used to distance ourselves from what we say and to attempt to dilute the force of our statements and therefore reduce chances of unwelcome responses.’

A ‘bald on-record strategy’ (Brown and Levinson) - that is a direct, clear, concise and unambiguous assertion - can lead to a range of unwelcome responses: direct contradiction in an equally bald on-record way, a challenge to provide proof or at least evidence, and, in some cases, an accusation of slander or libel. Tabloid newspapers dedicate considerable space to gossip about celebrities and the objects of such treatment can hardly complain about invasion of their privacy when it is in their interest to be in the public eye as frequently as possible. If a newspaper oversteps the mark, however, those same celebrities do not hesitate to sue. In the following text about the model Kate Moss, the expressions in italics show how an unnamed reporter for the Daily Mail employed hedging strategies to avoid the risk of legal action in an article with the clumsy headline What’s that party girl Kate Moss has popped out for?

(i) Kate Moss popped out for a spot of shopping last night - and returned home with two bottles of what could have been amyl nitrite. The substance, also known as ‘poppers’, is not illegal but is popular among clubbers who sniff its vapours to achieve a head rush. It is also often combined with other drugs.

Speculation has been mounting in recent weeks that Moss could be pregnant, although health experts have warned against the use of amyl nitrite during pregnancy. Moss has also been spotted drinking alcohol in recent weeks. The reporter uses the modal verb could and a past conditional construction rather than the unequivocal affirmation that Kate Moss bought amyl nitrite; it is merely a hypothesis and s/he does not exclude the possibility that the bottles actually contained mineral water. We learn that the substance is popular among ‘clubbers’ but it is not explicitly stated that Kate Moss leads that kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the passive voice is used to avoid stating directly that Moss herself would ever do something as reprehensible as to combine amyl nitrite with other (illegal?) drugs. The passive voice is again used to hide the identity of those responsible for fomenting ‘mounting speculation’ and the question of whether the famous model is indeed pregnant is again no more than a hypothesis signalled by a second use of the modal could. We have no information about the identities and medical credentials of the ‘health experts’ and a third use of the passive voice avoids any suggestion that it was paparazzi employed by the Daily Mail who spotted Kate Moss drinking alcohol. Any reader of normal intelligence would interpret the article as an accusation that the selfish and irresponsible Kate Moss is guilty of the despicable act of endangering the health of the baby she is carrying by indulging her own appetites and desires, but the judicious use of hedging techniques means that the text is almost certainly not actionable (note almost, a hedge used by someone who is not qualified to make authoritative pronouncements on legal matters).

Text (i) features two of the most frequently employed hedging strategies: the use of modal auxiliary verbs that indicate ‘speakers’ attitudes towards the factual content of an utterance’ (Crystal 1994: 257) and passive constructions without an explicit agent. Other techniques to avoid appearing excessively assertive or dogmatic include:

• Non-factive verbs such as seem, appear and suggest that allow the possibility that superficial appearances do not correspond to reality.

• Lexical verbs that indicate that what is stated is an opinion, not an objective fact: I think, it is believed to be, we suppose etc.

• Adverbs of frequency like sometimes, often or usually.

• Modal nouns: likelihood, assumption, possibility etc.

• Modal adjectives and adverbs: (un)likely, conceivable/conceivably, probable/probably etc.

• The use of approximators: sort of, more or less, roughly etc.

• Attributing responsibility to an anonymous third party: they say, a lot of people think etc.

• Metalingual glosses that diminish the speaker’s or writer’s authoritativeness: as far as I know, to the best of my knowledge etc.

A theory of communicative behaviour that has stood the test of time is Grice’s Co-operative Principle (1975), which is concerned with the extent to which we comply with four maxims of collaborative interaction. We normally tell the truth or what we believe to be the truth (the Quality Maxim), we endeavour to give enough but not too much information (the Quantity Maxim), we try to make our contribution pertinent (the Maxim of Relation) and we try to express ourselves clearly without obscurity or ambiguity (the Maxim of Manner). Grundy (2008: 299) defines a hedge in relation to the Co-operative Principle as ‘a means of indicating weak adherence to a conversational maxim’.

If the relevant maxim is that of quality, weak adherence implies questionable sincerity, or at the very least a certain evasiveness: ‘Hedging is the use of language features that allow a speaker or writer to avoid coming cleanly and quickly to the point, to avoid being specific and therefore providing ‘padding’ to the consequences of what they say.’ (Bloor and Bloor 2013: 13).

Hedging is inextricably linked to the broader issue of modality, which can be defined as the grammaticalized expression of a speaker’s or writer’s attitudes towards matters of possibility, likelihood, permissibility, ability, necessity, obligation and desirability with regard to what s/he says or writes. It is most commonly indicated by modal auxiliary verbs (can, might, should etc.) but can also be expressed by semi-modals such as have to or need (which are semantically similar to modals but are grammatically different in their negative and interrogative conjugations), and, as we have seen above, lexical verbs plus modal nouns, adjective and adverbs.

A distinction is made between epistemic modality, which is concerned with possibility and likelihood, and deontic modality, which involves necessity and obligation. The verbs most commonly associated with the former are may, might and could, while for the latter we use the modals must and should and the semimodal have to. The third type of modality, boulomaic or volitive modality, is concerned with (un)desirability and is expressed through the modal auxiliary would (especially would like) and non-modals such as wish and hope.

Norman Fairclough (2001: 105) distinguishes between relational modality - ‘a matter of the authority of one participant in relation to others’ – and expressive modality, which is ‘a matter of the speaker or writer’s authority with respect to the truth or probability of a representation of reality’. The former often involves verbs of deontic modality such as must and should: you must do as I say implies that the speaker has the authority to impose an obligation upon the interlocutor, while you should do as I say reduces the exhortation to the level of advice that the interlocutor can choose to ignore. The expressive type involves will, could and other verbs associated with epistemic modality: the consequences will be disastrous indicates that the speaker is sure of the accuracy of his/her prediction, whereas the consequences could be disastrous does not convey certainty but merely presents a hypothesis that will be much easier to disown if current fears prove to be unfounded. The verb may is sometimes used for relational deontic modality - you may go home now means that the speaker has sufficient authority over the interlocutor to grant him/her permission to go home - and sometimes for expressive epistemic modality - you may well be right is a judgement upon the likelihood that the interlocutor is right.

This text is primarily concerned with expressive and epistemic modality as it focuses on how speakers and writers evaluate the truth of what they themselves say or write. However, relational modality is also relevant, particularly with regard to what Fairclough, in a different work, calls the ‘texturing of identities’. How people signal the degree of certainty and truth to be assigned to their utterances tells us something about them as individuals and in relation to others.

Modality is important in the texturing of identities, both personal (‘personalities’) and social, in the sense that what you commit yourself to is a significant part of what you are - so modality choices in texts can be seen as part of the process of texturing self-identity. (Fairclough 2003: 16)

The texts analysed below demonstrate how the use of epistemic modality and hedging by Remain supporters – including some whose political futures depended upon a vote in favour of staying in the EU - tended to give the impression that they were not 100 per cent convinced by their own arguments. In contrast, Leave campaigners expressed rock-hard certainties and were remarkably untroubled by self-doubt. The closer we got to 23 June, the more I thought that Remain campaigners ought to read W. B. Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, which contains the lines: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’ Yeats ends his poem with a desperate question: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Some Remain supporters used epithets far worse than ‘rough beast’ to describe Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson; this text is concerned with the issue of ‘passionate intensity’, which was conspicuously absent in the speech and writing of prominent figures urging the public to vote for continued membership of the EU.

The following text, a warning about the economic consequences of leaving the EU, comes from a piece entitled Facts: Jobs (2016) on the Labour Party’s labour in for britain site:

(ii) Over three million jobs which are linked with our trade with the EU could be put at risk. British companies could face tariffs to export to Europe. For example, it is likely that UK-based car manufacturers [. . .] would suddenly face the same 10% tariffs on exports to Europe as the United States and Japan.

In the first two sentences the verb of epistemic modality, could, indicates that the loss of three million jobs and the imposition of tariffs are possibilities rather than certainties. Similarly, in the third sentence the modal adjective likely refers to a negative economic scenario that is probable but not certain. We are told that UK based car manufacturers would face, not will face, 10 per cent tariffs, which makes the warning a hypothesis rather than the inevitable consequence of leaving the EU.

As noted, it could be argued that such linguistic choices represent an honest admission that the issue was complex. In reality, no one could predict with any great confidence what would happen after a vote to quit the EU. After the referendum it was immediately obvious that few people, least of all certain leaders of the Leave campaign, had given much thought to the practicalities of negotiating a divorce. Before the vote there was some talk of the ‘Norway solution’, and later of ‘soft Brexit’, a compromise that would permit the UK to leave the EU but continue to have access to the EU’s single market, thus ensuring that there would be no imposition of tariffs and no loss of jobs. Alternatively, the consequence of ‘hard Brexit’, a clean break with all EU institutions, would most definitely be the imposition of tariffs (though not necessarily the loss of such a huge number of jobs). If the author(s) of text (ii) had assumed that Brexit would be of the hard variety, it would have been possible to use the modal verb will and the modal adjective certain in describing economic consequences that were not hypothetical at all, but the inescapable price to pay for a reckless decision.

A consistent feature of the Brexit (but not Lexit) campaign was concern that freedom of movement within the EU had resulted in the arrival of unsustainable numbers of migrant workers from such countries as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Texts (iii) and (iv), both from The Guardian, present entirely different scenarios of what a victory for Brexit would mean with regard to immigration. The first quotes an article in the May 2016 edition of the National Institute Economic Review by the economist Jonathan Portes, who maintains that Brexit would probably not lead to a substantial fall in the number of EU migrants (Travis 2016). The second cites a report published by the Social Market Foundation think tank that estimates that if Britain left the EU the majority of the 1.6 million EU citizens resident in the UK would not meet the requirements to obtain a work visa, and that a mass exodus of migrant workers would be disastrous for the economy (Mason 2016).

(iii) Brexit ‘unlikely to mean deep migration cuts and could lead to 2p tax increase’ Economist Jonathan Portes says Brexit is likely to cut net migration to UK by only 100,000 but reduction will cause financial harm (iv) Leaving the EU could cause catastrophic staff shortages in some sectors, as 88% of EU workers in Britain would not qualify for a visa under current rules, remain campaigners have warned.

There could be a severe impact on the UK labour market if freedom of movement were to end and workers of all countries were treated according to the current rules, the study found.

Filling this gap may pose a real challenge for UK employers.

Text (iii) gives the headline and lead of an article by Alan Travis, The Guardian’s home affairs editor. Again we see the modal verb could and the adjectives likely and unlikely to indicate that the article that follows is not an assertion of facts but a description of a possible outcome. Given that the prospect of Britain’s regaining control of immigration policy was fundamental to the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) programme, a convincing explanation of why Brexit would not lead to great cuts in the number of EU migrant workers could have done considerable damage to the Leave camp’s case. It is curious, therefore, that the home affairs editor of a newspaper that supported Remain did not vigorously declare that leaving the EU will not mean deep migration cuts, or will reduce the number of migrants by no more than 100,000. Since a number of UK employers made it clear that they would continue to require imported labour regardless of the outcome of the referendum, unequivocal affirmations about the negligible effect of Brexit on immigration would have been easy enough to justify. The modal verb will is used in the lead but with reference to unspecified financial harm rather than the potentially vote-swinging issue of immigration.

That economics is not an exact science is evident from the fact that text (iv) presents the opposite scenario of Brexit leading to an enormous cut in the number of EU migrants and ‘catastrophic staff shortages’ as an immediate consequence. In the first sentence the modal verbs could and would are used although the situation described is not really a hypothetical one. Visa requirements for non-EU citizens exist, as do data concerning the qualifications and family status of those EU workers currently resident in Britain. Similarly, the second and third sentences could be rewritten as statements of fact based upon the reality of existing visa requirements and the low percentage of migrant workers who meet those requirements: there will be a severe impact on the UK labour market and this will pose a real challenge for employers. This too is an argument that could have greatly damaged the Leave campaign if expressed through the first conditional form and a modal verb indicating the certain consequence of taking back control of immigration policy: for example, ‘be careful what you wish for because if you get rid of the Poles earning the national minimum wage, care homes will close and all you will take back is Auntie Mabel with her advanced state of dementia’.

Text (v), by the Australian journalist Andrew Dewson (2016) for The Independent deals with the danger (or hope, depending on one’s point of view) of renewed calls for Scottish independence following a victory for Leave, while text (vi) features The Mirror’s heavily hedged report of Prime Minister Cameron’s warning that Brexit would signal the end of low-cost flights (Hughes and Wheeler 2016).  (v) But there’s one very real possibility that Brits are ignoring: that a vote in favor of a Brexit could conceivably lead to the breakup of Britain and then of the Commonwealth.

Every business that might consider leaving England for mainland Europe following a Brexit might instead consider moving to Scotland.

Plenty of Brexit supporters want Britain to remain whole: they argue that Scotland wouldn’t become an automatic member of the EU and may not achieve favorable membership terms. But alternatively and just as likely - the EU desperately, wanting to stick it to England, might fast track Scottish membership, granting the country very favorable terms indeed.

What about the Commonwealth? The British monarch is still the official head of state in Commonwealth nations, but for how much longer? It’s possible that an independent Scotland could decline membership of the Commonwealth. Support for republicanism isn’t at the levels reported a decade ago, but if Britain no longer existed then sentiments may change. (vi) Cheap flights between European destinations could be put at risk by the UK leaving the EU, David Cameron has suggested. The Prime Minister sought to cast doubt on the ability of low-cost airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair to freely operate routes between EU member states after a Brexit.

The Prime Minister made the claims as he sought to rejuvenate his campaign for a Remain vote at June’s referendum after an Easter holiday in Lanzarote.

The first sentence quoted in text (v) features a noun (possibility), a verb (could) and an adverb (conceivably) that serve the epistemic function of presenting the prospect of the breakup of the UK as a potential development but not a certainty. The one thing that is asserted without hedging - the claim that the Brits are ignoring the risk of dismantlement of the UK - is open to challenge since Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), ensured that in the run-up to 23 June the entire nation understood that a second referendum on Scottish independence was on the SNP’s post-Brexit agenda.

The modal verb might is then used twice, first for the possibility of businesses relocating from England to mainland Europe, then for the prospect of their choosing Scotland as an alternative destination.

As regards the third part of text (v), epistemic modality is expressed through wouldn’t and may not in the presentation of the Leave argument that an independent Scotland would find itself outside the EU with no guarantee of an easy return, then through likely and might in the alternative scenario of Brussels deciding to give Scotland favourable treatment in order to punish England.

Twenty-five days after the publication of Dewson’s article and two days after the referendum, the European Commission made it abundantly clear that Brexit involved all of Britain and that Scotland would first of all have to achieve independence from the UK before applying for EU membership in the normal way.

The final part of text (v) features an informal register with aspects usually associated with spoken communication, such as direct questions and contracted verb forms. The second direct question may be seen as a hedging device since Dewson avoids a bald on-record statement that the British monarch will not be head of state in Commonwealth nations for much longer but leaves it to the reader to interpret the implicative created by his flouts of the maxims of quantity and manner. He also appears to be unaware of the fact that thirty-two of the fifty-two members of the Commonwealth are republics that already have their own president as head of state rather than Queen Elizabeth II. The British monarch has no constitutional role in independent republics like India, South Africa and Nigeria, where her status as head of the Commonwealth is purely symbolic.

Modality is expressed through the use of possible and could with reference to the prospect of an independent Scotland electing to leave the Commonwealth, and no explanation is given as to why the government in Edinburgh might choose to abandon a voluntary association of sovereign states in which Britain has no political control whatsoever over the other members. In the final sentence the reference to a rise in republican sentiments is hedged by the use of the modal verb may, but the suggestion is in any case irrelevant given that fifteen Commonwealth nations chose to adopt a republican system of government on gaining independence and seventeen others became presidential republics some years after becoming independent. It was noted earlier that the use of modality tells us something about speakers’ or writers’ attitudes towards the factual content of what they say or write, and in the case of text (v) it appears that indicators of uncertainty do not only signal an honest recognition of the complexities of the issues at stake, but also reflect the personal uncertainty of a writer who has not researched his subject sufficiently.

One immediate consequence of the vote for Brexit was the widely predicted devaluation of sterling. This led to the phenomenon of ‘staycation’ - a lexical blend of stay and vacation - as British families realized that they would get fewer euros for their pounds in Spain or Portugal and opted to rediscover the attractions of Blackpool and Brighton. The same devaluation obviously made Britain a more appetizing destination for holidaymakers from eurozone countries, Asia and the United States, and by 23 August 2016, The Independent could cite a number of sources with figures to demonstrate a significant increase in tourist spending in the UK during the month of July (Rodionova 2016). For low-cost airlines staycation meant that a drop in the number of British passengers was, and still is, offset by a rise in the number of non-British passengers flying to and from the UK.

Text (vi) reports on David Cameron’s warning that Brexit could mean that budget airlines might not be able to operate in the EU. The claim is not difficult to challenge given that companies based outside the European Union such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, Pegasus (Turkey) and UP (Israel) currently fly to EU destinations, and The Mirror, the one daily tabloid that supported Remain, employed a series of hedging techniques to establish a certain distance between the prime minister’s views and the journalists reporting them. In the first of the quoted sentences the modal verb could is used and we read that the possible risk to budget flights is something that Cameron ‘has suggested’ rather than stated or affirmed or simply said. The next sentence does not tell us that the prime minister cast doubts on the ability of Ryanair and Easyjet to continue to operate freely but ‘sought to cast doubt’, which implies that he did not necessarily succeed in his intention. Then in the third of the quoted sentences we learn that Cameron’s warning are ‘claims’ as opposed to declarations or statements, and that he made them ‘as he sought to rejuvenate his campaign for a Remain vote’, which again establishes the distinction between seeking to do something and actually doing it. In terms of relational modality and Fairclough’s notion of texturing identities, the intensive use of hedging in this article can be seen as indicative of the journalists’ wish to ensure that, on this specific question of budget airlines, their own self-identities are not too closely associated with the prime minister’s views.

Switching our attention to the Leave campaign, we find considerably less use of hedging and an entirely different approach to modality. Text (vii) comes from a post entitled Why Vote Leave on the official Vote Leave Take Control website of the Leave campaign.

(vii) If we vote to leave the EU We will be able to save £350 million a week We can spend our money on our priorities, like the NHS, schools, and housing.

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