To escape criticism—do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.Elbert Green Hubbard (1909, p. 38)
If you want to be a stickler about it, you can remind people in every statement you make of the deep-seated uncertainty of mortal existence. However, in everyday communication we only introduce doubt when there is reasonable doubt. If you ask a stranger for the time, and he tells you that it is 3:15, you thank him and move along. If he says, “It might be 3:15,” you still thank him, but you look around for someone else with a watch.
In much academic writing, clarity runs a poor second to invulnerability.Richard Hugo (1992, p. 11)
Expressions of doubt exist for a reason. Suppose someone tells you that Shelby is angry with you. You must decide what to do with that information. Now suppose that someone tells you that Shelby might be angry with you. This information might lead to a different course of action. If the person is quite sure about Shelby’s anger but added “might” because of her philosophical stance that everything is uncertain, she is correct in what she said but incorrect in what she communicated. We rely on social conventions to communicate much that is unstated. If the public is not accustomed to the ways in which we introduce doubt into our sentences, we are miscommunicating. Suppose you write,
Her mother reported that Julia has a “severe peanut allergy.”
You might think the subtext of this sentence is “See how careful I am? I am telling you where I got all my information. Also, I’m not an allergist so it is not my place to say how severe the allergy is. Therefore, I am using Julia’s mother’s words instead of my own.” Many readers will understand that this is all we mean. However, to some readers, we might as well have written,
The “woman” who claims to be Julia’s mother asserted, without evidence, that Julia (if that is indeed her name) has a so-called peanut allergy, which, for reasons unspecified, was described as “severe.”
Why do we write reports with hyper-precise language? We want to be right … and to be respectful. We also want not to be wrong, not to be challenged, and, if we are wrong, not to be responsible. You never know when someone might sue you for saying that an allergy is severe when in fact it is only moderately severe. Steven Pinker (2014) observed,
Writers acquire the hedge habit to conform to the bureaucratic imperative that’s abbreviated as CYA, which I’ll spell out as Cover Your Anatomy. They hope it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. …A classic writer counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means “in general” or “all else being equal.” If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there twenty-four hours a day seven days a week just because he didn’t qualify his statement with relatively rainy or somewhat rainy. … An adversary who is unscrupulous enough to give the least charitable reading to an unhedged statement will find an opening to attack the writer in a thicket of hedged ones anyway. … It’s not that good writers never hedge their claims. It’s that their hedging is a choice, not a tic. (pp. 44–45)
Let’s start with an excessively hedged statement and then explore some alternatives:
Julia’s mother’s CBCL Externalizing score of 78 suggests that Julia may engage in antisocial behavior more often than her peers.
Suggests? May? These words were no doubt intended as a sign of respect for the uncertainty inherent in the assessment process, but they also reveal an assessment in limbo and only half completed. If the evaluator has no other information about Julia, then, yes, the CBCL Externalizing score does no more than suggest the presence of problems Julia may have. But to stop there means that the evaluator does not understand what rating scales are for.
Rating scales are tools for collecting information efficiently and can focus our investigation on areas of particular concern. However, nothing rating scales can tell us is trustworthy enough to mention in a report—unless it has been corroborated. Once her parents, her teachers, and Julia herself have told us that she has a long history of truancy, shoplifting, and fistfights, the score is beside the point. We base our interpretation on the totality of evidence, not on a particular score. A corroborated score might still tell us something about the rarity of the problem, but to insist on words like suggest bespeaks a perversely cautious epistemology.
The information, interpretations, and conclusions in a classically written report have been thoroughly vetted by the examiner and are verifiable—at least in theory—by anyone. For this reason, they are stated simply, directly, and without hedging. Opinions, predictions, and preferences are clearly labeled as such when necessary, but without compulsive hand-wringing. In this way, the writer shows respect for the reader’s competence in recognizing an opinion for what it is.
Remove Unnecessary Qualifications and Excessive Sourcing
|Statement||Reason for Edit|
| ||If anyone is going to be accurate about such a matter, it is going to be Julia’s mother.|
| ||There is no reason to doubt Julia’s teacher’s words here. The original wording suggests that Julia’s teacher might have lied, or at best, is confused.|
| ||Rating scales do not have enough authority to stand on their own. Your judgment cannot be outsourced to them. Once the interpretation has been properly confirmed, the reference to the rating scale as a source is superfluous.|
| ||Almost anything may help Julia. What is your recommendation? There is no need to undermine confidence in your suggestions. It is widely understood that a recommendation is not a guarantee. If you are not ready to make a suggestion you can stand by, your assessment is not yet finished.|
At first, the classic style seems overly bold, as if the writers present their opinions as immutable laws. There is legitimate cause for concern here, but the worry is overstated. It is easy to spot the difference between the clear, disinterested pronouncements of classic prose and the bloviation and bluster of pompous windbags. If there is anything that we social creatures are good at, it is recognizing self-promotion, especially when the self-promoter’s interests do not align with our own. Furthermore, there is no set of writing guidelines in the world that will stop pompous windbags from engaging in pompous windbaggery. Therefore, we might as well design our rules of decorum for sensible people of good will.
When there are lingering doubts about the accuracy of a statement in a report, you should gather more evidence until you can say something more definite. No one benefits from words parsed so carefully they are watered down to meaninglessness with mushy maybes, could be sometimes, and possibly some days. These doubt-inducing words are indispensable tools, to be sure, but they are to be used with skill and judgment instead of mechanically inserted in every statement.
Writing in the classic style gives the writer certain license to be clear and direct, but no license for high-handedness. This freedom to be direct in writing is paid for by scrupulous scientific modesty and soul-searching doubt during the assessment phase. Assessment is not a parlor trick in which we guess from minimal information all of the person’s deepest secrets. Rather, we work collaboratively with the person and then verify with all relevant parties whether a possible interpretation is true. Thus, a properly vetted interpretation will come as no surprise when it appears in a report. If despite best efforts, the report is found to have an interpretive error, the report can be amended.
Obviously, hedging is warranted if you expect the report to be included in a lawsuit. If you wish to adopt the classic style, eliminating unnecessary qualification and hedging, but you still want to play it safe, you can include in your report a blanket disclaimer in which you acknowledge the possibility of error and that your observations, conclusions, and recommendations are simply your best guesses rather than claims of absolute certainty.
Excerpt from pp. 37–40 of Schneider, W. J., Lichtenberger, E. O, Mather, N., & Kaufman, N. L. (2018). Essentials of Assessment Report Writing (2nd ed). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.