There are many different rules in the English language. Learning how to correctly follow those rules when writing or speaking can be difficult, especially for students in high school or college that are expected to implement what they know into their assignments, or students who are learning English as a second language and need to learn how to use it in their speech. One of these rules is the use of tentative language.

What Is Tentative Language?

By definition, the word "tentative" means "not fully worked out or developed." Some people may say that they have "tentative plans" which means possible plans, or plans that are likely but not yet set in stone. People may also use the phrase, "it's tentative," when replying to a question about attending an event or making a plan. For example, you could ask someone, "Is Jimmy having a bachelor party?" and answer, "It's tentative." Or "Are you going to Jimmy's bachelor party?" and also answer, "It's tentative."

Tentative also means "hesitant or cautious" which ties into the concept of tentative language. Tentative language is "cautious language" that's utilized to make a statement open to interpretation, because the claim you're making is not proven or definite, or you're not in the position to make such a factual claim.

Tentative Language Examples

Tentative language helps the writer or speaker convey an idea or opinion that isn't necessarily proven. It helps the person avoid making blanket statements, generalizations or assumptions based on information or experiences that are not certain or could change as new discoveries come out. A tentative language list can help you understand what words and phrases to listen for or use when writing or speaking:

  • Perhaps
  • Suggests
  • Indicates
  • Believes
  • Appears to be
  • Seems to be
  • Saying "many" "some" or "a majority instead of "all"
  • A number of
  • May have been
  • Depending on
  • In general
  • Generally
  • Presumably
  • Unlikely
  • Will/would
  • Can/could
  • Should

To get an idea of how to use one of these in a sentence, let's take an example that does not use tentative language, and turn it into a sentence that does. For instance, the sentence, "Americans are not happy with the current state of their government" is a generalization, and does not use tentative language. It states that all Americans are unhappy with the state of their government.

Instead, you can use tentative language to change the sentence to, "In general, a number of Americans have suggested that they are unhappy with the current state of their government (due to recent polls)". By inserting "in general," "a number of" and "suggested" along with information on where you based your claim on at the end of the sentence, you now have a much more cautious claim.

Using Tentativeness in Academic Writing

It's very important to use tentativeness in academic writing because you don't want to give your reader potentially false information. Tentative language helps you to make claims that are cautious versus claims that are certain, definite or too factual in their language.

It's necessary to do this because even though you likely spent a lot of time doing research for your paper, you probably did not read every piece of information out there that exists on the topic. Or the topic you're covering may be open to different interpretations depending on who is reading the data.

Using tentative language in academic writing helps you make claims that are still strong and suitable to your overall argument, but without saying anything that's untrue or too bold. Deciding how much or what kind of tentative language to use depends on how confident you are in your claim and how strong the evidence and information is that you used to base that on.

Using Tentative Language for English Language Learners

Tentative language is an important topic taught to English language learners of all levels. As a native speaker, you may not realize that you use tentative language in everyday conversations. But, to a non-native speaker, the concept may be hard to grasp, even if they have a similar concept in their own language.

A big part of teaching tentative language to English language learners, in addition to teaching it to native speakers, is to get them to understand why we use it. By introducing different examples of sentences with tentative language and sentences without tentative language, students can get a sense of why tentative language must be used in certain circumstances. Teachers can give students different scenarios, worksheets, listening and speaking exercises to understand how to use it.

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