Strong writing requires strong verbs. That’s nothing new. It’s far better to say enraged than angry and exhausted than very tired. There are tons of articles about that on the net. What isn’t talked about as often is the ways we soften language.
Have you ever needed to say something but been afraid of offending someone or making them mad? If so, you probably couched what you wanted to say with softer words and phrases. We call those weasel words.
According to Merrian-Webster Dictionary, a weasel word is a “word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position.” They are words and phrases we use to appear truthful or sincere when we are not being that way.
Weasel words are the words and phrases that suck the meaning out of the words around them like people once believed weasels sucked the yolk out of eggs. Weasel words are the ones that cause confusion or hide the truth and they weaken your writing and your credibility. But if that’s the case, why do people use them with such frequency?
The answer is simple. Using weasel words lets the writer or speaker off the hook. They offer just enough wiggle room that the speaker or writer can evade offense, responsibility and legal liability.
It’s because you use them to soften your message that they are so popular in political communication. It’s why Members of Congress say things like: “Mistakes were made” and “There is evidence that….” Neither of those statements give details. Who made the mistakes? What specifically were the mistakes? Who is responsible? What is the evidence? Who discovered it? What does it mean?
Politicians use weasel words and phrases to sound authentic and genuine when they do not want to be truthful or do not know the answer.
Lawyers also love weasel words because they alleviate legal liabilities. If you never state who was responsible, you never admit guilt. It’s why you see phrases like “popular wisdom has it…” and “it has been claimed that.…” Neither of these phrases say anything either. Is popular wisdom the truth? Have the claims been proven or are they rumor?
Advertisers also rely on them. “Award-winning” is thrown about a lot, but how often do you see what the award was, who awarded it and when? “More than 80% use our product.” That’s great if you know who was in the polled group to get the 80% figure or the 9 out of 10.
But weasel phrases are not the only problem. We use weasel words too. Words like: may, might, could, can, can be, virtually, up to, as much as, like, believe, possibly, helps, supports, is useful, improved, gains, acts, works, effective, efficient, many, most, almost all, seems, appears, looks, is like, from, at least, as many as.
All of these words modify and weaken statements. They leave room should anyone counters the statement, which is handy in shady business deals, but not so great if you want to write stronger.
Learning to identify the weak words and phrases will help you write stronger yourself. Start with the likely sources of weasel words and phrases—politicians, lawyers, advertisers. Analyze what you read, hear and write and mark any words or phrases that don’t say anything or hides facts.
Removing weasel words from your writing will make you a stronger writer. It will also make you better at judging content and the veracity of claims.