Writing Functions 15: Certainty

Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Expressing degrees of certainty


It is important when you are writing critically to show how sure you are about something. In other words, you need to show the degree of certainty. Bear in mind, though, that academic writing is usually cautious, to some extent.


Look at the following examples:

It is not known, and will probably never be known, when he began writing poetry. The answer almost certainly lay in the sack of papers that Susan Owen, on her son’s strict instructions, burnt at his death.

Less finished, but more intimate, is a passage from a fragmentary “Ballad of a Morose Afternoon”, written most probably some time after he had left Dunsden.

The other way in which the economic aspects of military expenditure were presented was in the form of the public expenditure costs. However, this was definitely secondary to the manpower approach.

Water color was, possibly because of the time it took, less popular than tempera.

Her success undoubtedly inspired younger women, and she openly encouraged those in her office.

There were, broadly, two interrelated reasons for this, the first relating to Britain’s economic and Imperial difficulties, the second to the internal dissension in all three parties, a symptom perhaps of the need for a realignment of political parties.

Some of the claims are very strong:

It is not known …

this was definitely secondary …

Her success undoubtedly inspired younger women …

Some are much more cautious:

It will probably never be known.

… possibly because of the time it took

… a symptom perhaps of the need for a realignment


Verbs Degree of certainty

is (not)
will (not)
must (not)



should (not)

probably (not)
presumably (not)


could (not)


less strong

may (not)
might (not)

possibly (not)
perhaps (not)

impersonal (i.e. no commitment)


is said that …
appears that …
seems that …

X reports that …
There is evidence to suggest that …

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