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Keywords:

  • risk analysis;
  • linguistic uncertainty;
  • ambiguity;
  • vagueness;
  • underspecificity;
  • context dependence

Most risk assessments assume uncertainty may be decomposed into variability and incertitude. Language is often overlooked as a source of uncertainty, but linguistic uncertainty may be pervasive in workshops, committees, and other face-to-face language-based settings where it can result in misunderstanding and arbitrary disagreement. Here we present examples of linguistic uncertainty drawn from qualitative risk analysis undertaken in stakeholder workshops and describe how the uncertainties were treated. We used a process of iterative re-assessment of likelihoods and consequences, interspersed with facilitated discussion, to assist in the reduction of language-based uncertainty. The effects of this process were evident as changes in the level of agreement among groups of assessors in the ranking of hazards.