Wednesday, 12 August 2009

On hedging

A correspondent writes to ask about a phrase he has commonly heard in weather forecasts: in the way of, as in not much in the way of cloud tonight, and more in the way of rain tomorrow. He wonders what its grammatical status is, and what it adds to not much cloud and more rain.

This is one of the class of what are usually called 'hedges' - expressions which provide approximations or which reduce the force of an utterance in some way. A large number of expressions fall into this category, such as more or less or something in the order of - and in the way of. Hedges provide a way of having your cake and eating it. I'm expecting more or less a dozen means that you are correct if a dozen people turn up and also correct if 11 or 13 turn up. Exactly how much fuzziness a hedge allows is never clear. If 10 people turn up, is this also 'more or less a dozen'? Or 9? Or 8?

Grammatically, in the way of is a complex preposition, like by way of, in accordance with, and many more. Functionally, in the present example, it is a way of enabling forecasters (as the phrase is) to hedge their bets. Anyone who tries to predict the future knows what a dangerous game they're playing. Everyone is waiting to get them. So hedges are popular because they permit a greater chance of accuracy. If I say There'll be sun tomorrow I'm suggesting you will see the sun in the sky all day long. If I say There'll be more in the way of sun tomorrow I'm saying that there will be some sunshine, but not always, and maybe even there'll be no clear sun at all (perhaps because some cloud gets in the way). In the way of Noun implies a continuum of Nounness from maximum to minimum.

Presumably my correspondent writes about this because he has noticed the phrase being overused by individual forecasters. Any hedge being overused will attract criticism, and ultimately be considered a cliche. But it's by no means restricted to forecasters. People who provide traffic reports use them all the time. They never say No problems on the roads in our area this morning but No major problems on the roads in our area this morning. Nor is it restricted to the media. Listen to any scientist talking figures, and watch out for the more intellectual hedges. Some 10 per cent of the population..., plus or minus.... And everyone else does it too, sometimes filling their utterances with hedges. For all I know, not to put too fine a point on it, this sort of behaviour is very likely going to be used by more or less everyone, I imagine.


R A Harless said...

I personally dislike using concrete statements, since life is so rarely obliges them. I also prefer to use gender neutral pronouns when possible.

vp said...

Reminds me of the great Two Ronnies joke (from memory):

"There won't be much in the way of comedy -- apart from Bernard Manning, who's _always_ in the way of comedy."

Alex Case said...

Maybe there is something about weather forecasts that make them more removed from normal language than other kinds of TV speech. In Japan the weather forecasters use "deshou" and "deshou ka" all the time at the end of sentences, rather than the other many ways of expressing uncertainty in Japanese like "kamoshirimasen". This drives me nuts as in normal conversation it means "isn't it?" and is meant to get a reaction from you. Sure gets a reaction from my remote control finger!

DC said...

Very nice. Reminds us that these trends aren't new.

Richard Sabey said...

"In the way of" doesn't look to me like a hedge. A word/phrase could be a hedge if it modifies the word/phrase that expresses the quantity, such as "more or less" in your example "more or less a dozen". By contrast, "in the way of" governs the noun phrase that is the topic of the sentence. I think of it as being used rather like "as regards", to introduce the topic, and with no indication of hedging.

DC said...

Hedging is a semantic/pragmatic rather than a grammatical concept, so I don't think it's especially useful to constrain it so narrowly. In the way of is omissible, in the examples, therefore can't really be said to 'govern' anything.