The notion of uncertainty fascinates me. Being uncertain is often seen to be a bad thing, and expressing it in writing and speaking is sometimes criticised as being wishy-washy. These days it seems that unmitigated statements are preferred for their directness and clarity. Personally, I am more comfortable in ‘the space between yes and no’ as one writer called it, which I think can be more precise and more polite. I am full of admiration when politicians or scientists will admit to being uncertain about something. One example was surgeon David Nott interviewed on the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs about his work on the front line. He recounted one episode where he had operated on an IS fighter and saved his life. Pressed by the journalist, Nott refused to concede that person would have certainly continued to kill innocent people, His reply was “I don’t know that, and you don’t know that”.
In Applied Linguistics, the ability to hedge, or convey appropriate tentativeness, is seen an important interpersonal skill for building relationships in business, or expressing modesty in academia. In the last few years a trending hedge in these settings is ‘My understanding is that....’. The polemicist Christopher Hitchins used ‘Arguably’ to name one of his collections of essays, and my favourite Roger McGough volume of poetry is entitled ‘As far as I know’.
Hedges, like love, are all around us. They often crop up in song lyrics, such as ‘It ain’t necessarily so”, or my favourite song from the shows “If I loved you”. And rather than being wishy washy, uncertainty was used very effectively to torment and tantalize in this old number. Because uncertainty also means possibility.
- The Grand Perhaps!: from Browning’s Poem “Bishop Blougram’s apology” in which the Bishop challenges the narrator to admit the possibility of a God.