Hedging and rounding in numerical expressions

Williams, Sandra and Power, Richard (2013). Hedging and rounding in numerical expressions. Pragmatics & Cognition, 21(1) pp. 193–223.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1075/pc.21.1.09wil

Abstract

Previous accounts of hedges assume that they cause language to become vague or fuzzy (Lakoff 1973); however, hedges can actually sharpen numerical concepts by giving explicit information about approximation, especially where bare numbers appear misleadingly round or precise. They can also tell hearers about the direction of approximation (greater or less than). This article provides a first empirical account of interactions between hedging and rounding in numerical expressions. We demonstrate that hedges occur more commonly with round numbers than with non-round ones. However, we also provide evidence from user studies that when numbers are not hedged, readers interpret round ones as approxima- tions and non-round ones as precise; and that placing a hedge before a round number has no effect on its interpretation, whereas placing it before a non-round number shifts people’s interpretations from precise towards approximate. We attempt to explain this conundrum.

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