What is Hedging?

Hedging is put around arguments, as it is around fields of crops, to prevent them from being trampled. Hedging in argument means sheltering behind ambiguous meanings so that the sense can be changed later. (‘I said the last thing we wanted in the Middle East was an all-out war, and I stand by that. What we have embarked upon is a limited war…’)

Hedging involves the advance preparation for a definitional retreat. The words and phrases are so carefully chosen that the option is retained to do a switch in definitions. Opposing arguments and examples bearing down on the arguer suddenly find a hedge barring their advance, while their quarry may be sighted in a different field. (‘All I said was that I’d be home at a reasonable hour. I think that three o’clock in the morning is a reason-able hour in view of what I’ve been doing.’)

Hedging is fallacious because it puts forward two or more different statements under the guise of one. The alternative interpretations are smuggled, like the companions of Odysseus, clinging to the undersides of the sheep which they appear to be. The hope is that the hearer, like the blinded Cyclops, will not know the difference. The effect of hedging is to render useless the information it purports to convey.

Soothsayers would be sorrier souls without hedging to give them more than one chance. Just as you hedge bets in a race by backing more than one horse, so in prophecy you can bet on more than one outcome.


Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth

William Shakespeare, Macbeth, iv, i, 79 – 81 .

(The hedge was that the witches failed to tell Macbeth that this description did not apply to those such as Macduff, born by Caesarian section. He found this out after a very large hedge had moved from Birnam to Dunsinane.)


Most oracles and insurance agents are notorious for their use of hedging: some take it to unimagined lengths. The centuries of Nostradamus are so obscure, and can be translated in so many ways, that they can be used to predict literally anything. People have claimed to find in them the most astonishingly detailed, and astonishingly accurate, foretelling of the future. Not only Napoleon and Hitler, but even recent popes and politicians emerge from his pages. As with all hedged prophecies, however, there are tell-tale signals. People are very good at finding references in the writings of Nostradamus to what has already happened. They are not successful at finding accurate accounts of what will happen. There is also a remarkable consistency to the way in which subsequent ages have found that many of his prophecies made sense for their own time.

Dishonesty is an essential aspect of hedging. The ambiguity is inserted deliberately with intent to deceive, and for the purpose of proving the perpetrator correct, whatever the outcome. The fairground fortune-teller shelters harmlessly behind her hedge by telling you that you are destined to travel (even if only on the No. 36 bus home). The economist hides rather more wilfully behind the hedge that things will get worse, barring a major change in the world economy; (when they get better, it is because there was a major change in the world economy.)

Hedging requires planning. Few people can toss off ambiguous phrases on the spur of the moment; we expect to find them in the prepared statement which is issued, rather than in the off-the-cuff remark. You should accumulate a stock of phrases which look plain enough from one angle, but are bedecked with hedges as you approach them.


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