E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).
Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale.
Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?
In precise sciences, axiomatic convention lies at the bedrock of understanding, and only on such solid foundations can pure, absolutely true statements exist. In everyday communication, the bedrock consisting of common assumptions is covered in so much muck it’s surprising we can convey anything beyond a basic meaning.
Yet we muddle along: between the general and the particular, between the principles and the examples.
Generalising—outside of the sciences and even when done with a touch of humour like in the Quote—is dangerous: you risk disbelief and dessent with every subsequent line, especially if you state your case publicly and in plain language. Exceptions, quibbles, and grey areas abound, as do people who will readily propugn all of these. And with good reason, because few things in our messy lives are absolutes (Death is still hanging in there; Birth per se is losing status; Taxes, contrary to popular belief, are not paid by everyone). On the other hand, we can’t live entirely in the labyrinths of “Hedgeland” with the could be-s, maybe-s, and seems like-s, for then nothing of meaning would ever get said.
The Middle Path, but of course! (I won’t quote the Tao Te Ching.)
As with any aspect of language, over the long term, how we walk the Middle Path between the Absolutes and Hedgeland is a reflection of culture, upbringing, and training, as well as, of how we interpret life. It’s something to think about next time you say that you will maybe go to that party, or that you will try to do your best. Vacuous words or pointers to your personality?
Either way, paying attention to the kinks in the Middle Path is useful, required even, if you’re a writer.
Tips for (non-professional) Writers
Hedge words and diffidence should be a matter of choice—a weapon to be wielded precisely, like any other in the writer’s arsenal—not a matter of the author’s insecurity in his or her writing.
In non-fiction, nuances of uncertainty (might, may, probably, loosely speaking, etc) signal the author’s degree of confidence; a piece of writing that sits squarely in Hedgeland won’t stir anyone to anything and will only disseminate confusion.
In fiction—barring the exotic, the literary, and the masterful—similar statements can be made for each of the narrative tactics. Here are some such statements, in brief:
- An omniscient narrator can’t be uninformed and clueless, so as a rule stays close to the Absolutes, except when reporting uncertainty of characters.
- A first person narrator can be anything from insecure and blind (Hedgeland) to arrogant and detached (Absolutes), depending on the meanderings of the Middle Path.
- Limited third person point of view has to worry about delineating what is a character’s insecurity and what isn’t (depending on whether it’s a close third, whether there are multiple points of view etc.)
- An observer-author (fly-on-the-wall) can’t enter characters’ heads, therefore any attempted interpretation of events stays close to Hedgeland; otherwise it’s not observation, it’s divination.
- An observer-narrator (think: the Watson in a Sherlock Holmes novel) follows properties of first or third person narrative when referring to his or her own actions, but those of an observer-author when referring to the object of observation. (The two are stitched together around the events where the observer participates in events, and engages in conversation, with the observed.)
Writing wanders into Hedgeland more often than is healthy—perhaps it is our nature to be unsure. Luckily, even a beginner-author can find a way out with relative ease.
Introductory writing books tout the infamous avoid adverbs. Any number of reasons are given: adverbs suffocate prose, adverb proliferation signals weak verbs, most adverbs don’t add anything. All of which holds, within reason. There are a few adverbs, however, that signal hedging and that are worth looking out for specifically:
actually, really, only, just, but, almost, maybe, perhaps, possibly, technically, apparently, loosely.
Further, if you’re getting bogged down in subjunctive, or have your characters try to do things, you may have wandered off the Path. Then there are other verbs and phrases (and their variants) that may mushroom if left unchecked:
it looks, it seems, it appears, it sounds, it feels; it’s a kind of, a type of, a sort of, a way of; think, presume, suppose, guess, mean.
Lastly, there’s the dreaded some: someone, somewhere, something, somehow, someplace, and family, such as: however, whoever, wherever, whichever. Oh, and I almost forgot the passive—don’t avoid it like the plague, avoid it like brain freeze (which is worth it if the ice-cream is good!).
Rephrasing problematic passages to eliminate most of the above words and their synonyms will lead you out of Hedgeland. (If you don’t know how to get started, cross out all of the above in a passage, except the subjunctive which you change to indicative, and the clumsiest passives which you change into actives. Tidy what remains, and reinsert hedges where genuinely needed.) It seems a crude, low-level solution—it is—but as a first step, you do it and it works. I’ve stripped down texts so many times, only to realise either that I don’t know what I’m saying and that I was hiding my ignorance behind vague notions, or that what I’m saying is self-evident.
Which brings me to a beloved remedy, all too frequently forgotten:
The best way to revise a recalcitrant sentence is to delete it.
- Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976, by E. B. White, edited by Rebecca M. Dale.
- Chapter 7 on point of view and voice in Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing The Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin. (She doesn’t address hedge words, but the point of view studies are useful.)
- Chapter 19: Definition and Understanding, in Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson., which makes a case for using hedge words to chose specific members of object categories.