Indirect speech is one way that we communicate politeness, willingness to collaborate, modesty, and other worthy attributes when we speak with each other. Despite the American love of “getting right to the point,” people who always speak directly may sound brusque, impatient, or rude.
However, indirect language patterns often read differently in print. In writing, we lose conversational cues. Plus, not all of our readers use the same conversational patterns.
As mentioned in my last post on indirectness in writing (Polite or Pushover?), if readers do not perceive the conversational pattern you’re using, they interpret the words literally.
Unfortunately for many of us, these indirect expressions filter into our writing without our noticing them.
If you want to assess or correct the problem, you must first identify it. Happily, linguists have identified the primary culprits.
Beware the Four Horsemen of Hesitation
Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics who studies language and gender, has identified four patterns of tentative speech. As I’m unrestricted by an academic writing style, let’s call them the four horsemen of hesitation.
- Expressions of uncertainty: I think, perhaps, or disclaimers like I may be mistaken, but…
- Hedges: Weakening words and phrases like sort of, kind of, or somewhat
- Tag questions: Phrases or questions seeking immediate confirmation (isn’t it? Don’t you agree?)
- Intensifiers: Words like really or very that, despite appearances, weaken rather than strengthen the point (I’m really serious.)
When you know what to look for, you’ll see them everywhere in your own writing and that of others, mowing down authority and weakening the prose. In my experience, they appear frequently in emails, where we often type as we would speak.
Corralling the Horsemen
Search them out in your own writing and determine if they belong.
- Tag questions are easiest to spot, and least likely to work their way into your writing.
- You can find and correct common intensifiers by searching for words like very, really and quite.
- Searching for some, sort of, and kind of will uncover many hedges.
Subtler expressions of uncertainty may embedded in your thought patterns. That doesn’t mean they must stay. Remember, you can edit and revise your thoughts in writing.
You may use hedges to express necessary unknowns, particularly in academic or industry writing. If the hedge words increase accuracy, keep them. Be clear about it. The data isn’t conclusive, but the evidence leads me to believe that…
Don’t hunt out every last bit of tentative language. Phrases like Would you be willing to… express politeness.
But when you want to appear professional, confident, and authoritative, keep the horsemen of hesitation away from the stronghold of your ideas.