Hedging expressions used in academic written feedback: a study on the use of modal verbs

  • Kok Yueh Lee


This paper sets out to answer a fundamental question: ‘How do tutors hedge their comments using modal verbs?’ A total of 126 feedback reports comprising 35,941 words were collected from two Humanities departments in a UK higher education institution. Although this is a relatively small corpus, it is a specialised corpus. The research focuses on a specific genre – written feedback –, thus the findings should be justifiable in relation to the hedging expressions used in giving feedback through the use of modal verbs. A wordlist search of the nine core modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will and would) was carried out with WordSmith Tools 5. The results show that could, might and would are the top three modal verbs, followed by can, may, must, should and will, all of which are used as hedging, although some level of certainties are higher than others. Shall was not found in the written feedback, since it is more commonly used in legal texts. The modal verbs could, might and would were used most often because of their lower levels of certainty. Must, should and will indicate the higher certainty level, more direct and less opted for. The concordances for each modal verb were also further examined for their functions. The modal verbs were used to indicate criticism (can, could, may, might, will and would), suggestions (could, may, might and would), possibility (may, might and can) and necessity (must and should). Other functions included permission (can), certainty (will) and advice (would), all of which were of very low frequency. The results show that tutors tend to be more assertive or direct when commenting on mechanical aspects of writing (through must and should) and to use more hedging in criticising or offering suggestions. The findings of this research aim to provide a feedback framework as a reference guide to teacher training programmes.


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Author Biography

Kok Yueh Lee
University of Birmingham / United Kingdom
How to Cite
Lee, K. Y. (2013). Hedging expressions used in academic written feedback: a study on the use of modal verbs. Research in Corpus Linguistics, 1, 33-45. Retrieved from https://ricl.aelinco.es/index.php/ricl/article/view/11