Hedging to save face: a linguistic analysis of written comments on in-training evaluation reports

Shiphra Ginsburg*, Cees van der Vleuten, Kevin Eva, Lorelei Lingard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Written comments on residents' evaluations can be useful, yet the literature suggests that the language used by assessors is often vague and indirect. The branch of linguistics called pragmatics argues that much of our day to day language is not meant to be interpreted literally. Within pragmatics, the theory of 'politeness' suggests that non-literal language and other strategies are employed in order to 'save face'. We conducted a rigorous, in-depth analysis of a set of written in-training evaluation report (ITER) comments using Brown and Levinson's influential theory of 'politeness' to shed light on the phenomenon of vague language use in assessment. We coded text from 637 comment boxes from first year residents in internal medicine at one institution according to politeness theory. Non-literal language use was common and 'hedging', a key politeness strategy, was pervasive in comments about both high and low rated residents, suggesting that faculty may be working to 'save face' for themselves and their residents. Hedging and other politeness strategies are considered essential to smooth social functioning; their prevalence in our ITERs may reflect the difficult social context in which written assessments occur. This research raises questions regarding the 'optimal' construction of written comments by faculty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-188
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Assessment
  • Qualitative
  • Competence
  • Linguistics

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