Epistemic modality and hedging

In some parts of the discussion, there is a high frequency of epistemic modal forms and hedges. Elsewhere, however, very few appear. The three speakers use these forms to varying degrees, and the frequency appears to be triggered by how contentious the content of the discussion is.

The extract below is from the a point in the discussion where very few epistemic modal forms or hedges occurred.

13. G14: how does

14. G13: =mmm=

G14: Johnson treat the prisoner (1) hates him (.) =he

G15: =uhuh=

15. G13: =yeah cruel =uhuh (.) and he

G14: hates him=

G15: =mmm he's sort of the enemy=

16. G13: doesn't care (.) to him it is just a job and the (.) cos

G14: uhuh

In lines 13-16 above there is a conspicuous absence of hedges and epistemic modals. Opinions are baldly stated, with the exception of G15, who describes Johnson's view of the prisoner as "sort of the enemy". Apart from this hedge, G13 and G14 use unhedged assertions. All three group members appear to be in complete agreement on every point, so it is this which perhaps determines the low frequency of hedges.

On the other hand, there are utterances heavily marked with hedges and epistemic modal forms. In the example below G13 makes a false start and produces a second version hedged differently from the first version.

118. G13: but (.) but (.) do you

119. G13: not think that's just a big a. (.) it could be just a

120. G13: big act (1) he might not

G13 marks her utterance with several degrees of uncertainty. Initially she poses it as a negative question "do you not think...", then restructures the suggestion as a proposition: "it could be just...". She begins to make the proposal a third time "he might not...", but this is not completed. Although only one version of the suggestion is completed, the two incomplete versions underline G13's degree of uncertainty.

G15 responds in an equally hedged manner:

120. G13: big act (1) he might not

G15: (1) he might just be putting it

121. G13: I don't think he does (.) I don't think he

G15: on but (1) I don't know

122. G13: would=

G14: =mmm

G15: =uhuh (.) I think he's sort of (.) made like that=

G15 does not agree or disagree with G13, she simply expresses her uncertainty: "He might just be putting it on but (1) I don't know". G13 responds to this expression of uncertainty by withdrawing from the hypothetical situation she has proposed, and expressing that she thinks the opposite of what she originally proposed. G13 still hedges her declaration of her opinion however: "I don't think he does (.) I don't think he would". G15 responds with more commitment to this proposition : "uhuh (.) I think he's sort of made like that". She too still hedges, however, with I think and sort of.

The result of this hedging by G13 and G15 is that they consider a possible explanation for Bamforth's behaviour which neither of them finds convincing, and reject it for a position which they both assent to.

The example below is strongly marked for epistemic modality and hedging, as well as containing false starts and a tag question:

140. G14: (.) Evans as well (.) he jus. he's (.)

141. G14: sort of gives it back (.) he knows how to deal with him

142. G14: (.) doesn't he= it's like

G15: =he does he sort of (.) well he doesn't

143. G14: (.) gives him a bit back

G15: ignore it (.) but he sort of (.)

144. G13: =right=

G14: =it doesn't really bother / him

G15: he takes it in his stride=

G14 introduces the character of Evans into the discussion. She makes a false start, hesitates four times, hedges "sort of", and ends her turn with a tag question (lines 140-142). G15 also makes a false start, hedges twice using "sort of", makes two hesitations, and uses "well" turn-medially (lines 142-143).

When the parameters of the topic have been established, the hedges decrease. G14 completes G15's turn at line 143: "gives him a bit back". G15 adds to that "he takes it in his stride", neither of which comment is hedged. It is at this point that G13 gives back channel support, "right".

From this instance, it appears that the hedges are linked to the speaker's uncertainty as to what the opinions of the other group members are on the topic. The participants negotiate their opinions, and as they reach group consensus, the hedges begin to disappear.

This discussion therefore demonstrates very selective use of epistemic modal forms and hedges to negotiate sites of potential conflict - markedly co-operative behaviour.

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