Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Eliminate vague words and expressions, part of Writing in Plain English.
- What comes to mind when you hear the word weasel? The small mammal that's an active predetor, long and slender with short legs? Or maybe the slang term, that scheming deceitful, conniving person who will do whatever's neccessary to get what he wants. As in he weaseled his way out of attending the meeting by saying he was stuck in traffic. Or the slang verb for physical removal, the dog managed to weasel out of the cage. Those are all legitimate meanings of weasel. Now let's talk about weasel words, that informal expression to define meaningless, vague words that add nothing to a sentence except extra words.
Words that may try to either overstate or understate something, to give an overexaggerated view or to intentionally mislead. We often find them in advertising and politics. They're like that dog trying to get out of something. They help the writer get out of giving specifics of providing concrete evidence. I like Stewart Chaplin's definition in Stained Glass Political Platform published in 1900 in The Century Magazine. Words that suck the life out of the words next to them.
Or maybe President Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he argued One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use weasel words, when one weasel word after another is used, there is nothing left. As we look at these examples, I'm not saying the statement is true or false, just that the weasel words make me question the truthfulness. The weasel words would weaken any possible real truth and will make you want to further investigate or decide if the writer has nothing better to offer as support.
Also, I'm using generic examples rather than quoting from specific advertisements, politicians, or business people. Let's look at a couple of general categories of weasel words. First, vague references to support statements. You can claim something that may have no support but it sounds good. It's been found that all dogs like XYZ dog food. Who found this? How was the data collected? Or it clearly stands to reason that all employees should receive a pay raise.
Whose reason? Why? Based on what? Anyone with common sense would buy this product. Wow, I don't want to be accused of not having common sense, do you? But my common sense tells me I need to know more about the product. This product costs 15 percent less. Less than what? Other brands? Less than it did yesterday? Last year? But how much does it really cost? Another category of weasel words is vague expressions of another kind. Words such as some, many, most, several, and up to.
More than, as few as, can, often, would like to, and qualifiers such as maybe, probably, and unlikely. Most people like this new flavor. Different category, but same questions. How many? How is this determined? Several companies are buying these improved products. Six of ten or 600 of 1,000. Up to 40 percent of the voters dislike Proposition Z. That can range from 0-39.
If it's really 40% then say it, don't weasel out of giving voters the truth, whether that's five percent or 38%. This new diet product can help you lose 20 pounds in 20 days. It can or it will? A big difference. The vast majority of students disagree with the administration's new dress regulations. How are the facts collected? All of the students? 51% of 100 students surveyed, one more than half would qualify as the majority.
This product can last a lifetime. Whose lifetime? Mine or the products? If it lasts a year then that was it's lifetime. I would prefer that I be told how many hours of use it has. I would like to vote for you. Would like to? That's not the same as saying I will vote for you. After I would like to statement we usually wait for a but or however. I would like to vote for you but I disagree with your view of the climate change. The new policy is unlikely to pass.
Hmm, here's a possible thinking process. If it's not likely to pass then one, why should I waste my time voting for it or two I want to say I was on the winning side so I'll vote against it also. Plain English writers will avoid weasel words. So as you edit your drafts, learn to look for those words. As readers, learn to question those words. Why, when, who, how many? Once you begin asking those questions then the next logical step is to get the truth or to further investigate so you will know the truth.
So what do you think of now when you hear the word weasel? Trying to get out of something, the little animal that's an active predator? Predators of all kinds exploit others. They use others in trying to get out of telling the truth. They mislead or deceive. That's exactly what weasel words do. They try to exploit readers who don't question statements, who don't take the time to analyze the statements. Why would writers want to mislead or deceive readers? The obvious answer is because there are no facts, no concrete proof that the product is the best on the market or that voters agree on an issue.
So be a critical writer and a critical reader. The statement may sound good on the surface but give me the truth, the truth in plain English.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
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- Explain how to make your writing clear, concise, and straightforward.
- Recognize the average reading level for most audiences.
- Identify commonly overused words.
- Recognize how strong verbs can help avoid passive writing.
- Explore the benefits of deleting extra words.
- Define “weasel words.”