You’ve probably heard the phrase “to weasel out of” something. It means to avoid responsibility by being dishonest or wily. Weasels have come to be associated with deception, which is perhaps because, despite their cuddly appearance, they’re actually vicious predators.
Weasel words, therefore, give a false impression without telling an outright lie. Advertisers and politicians regularly use them when they want to emphasize (or leave out!) certain details. But weasel words also turn up in essays and other academic work. When writers aren’t certain about their arguments, they might use weasel words to make their statements suitably ambiguous.
Those sneaky weasel words aren’t always obvious, so it’s easy to use them without realizing it. Here, we’ll identify the most common weasel words so you can weed them out of your writing.
Weasel Word Examples
Typically, weasel words fall into one of three categories: anonymous authorities, vague statistics, and weakening adverbs. We’ll look at examples of each of these.
1. Anonymous authorities
When people state a view that they don’t have any hard evidence for, they might invoke a non-specific authority to make their argument sound more convincing:
It is said that pineapple should never be put on a pizza.
“It is said” is meaningless here because the reader doesn’t know who is doing the saying. These words are supposed to imply that pineapple on pizza is universally disapproved of. However, the phrase would be technically true even if only one person had expressed such an opinion.
Research shows that pepperoni is more popular than anchovies.
The “research” mentioned here could have involved a survey of the writer’s six friends who ordered pizza the evening before!
Experts agree that eating takeout reduces stress.
Who are these experts? And what is their area of expertise?
Other examples of anonymous authority are “studies suggest,” “it is thought,” and “critics claim.”
2. Vague statistics
Beware of inexact numerical expressions. As can be seen from the following examples – and their possible translations – imprecise terms can be interpreted in different ways:
Up to 75% off everything!
(Translation: A total of five products have been discounted by 75%, and our other products either have a much smaller discount or no discount at all.)
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Most respondents said they would buy from us again.
(Translation: We only asked for feedback from the customers whose orders didn’t get lost, and 49% of them said they’d never buy from us again.)
Other sketchy number-related words include “some,” “many,” “numerous,” “few,” “masses,” and “fraction.”
3. Weakening adverbs
A third type of weasel word is weakening adverbs. By adding one of these, writers dilute the meaning of an otherwise bold statement:
Sales will probably double next year.
The campaign was somewhat successful.
The results are rather alarming.
This category of weasel words also includes “fairly,” “quite,” “usually,” and “relatively.”
Summary: How to Wipe Out Weasel Words
The trouble with weasel words is that they have a bad reputation. You might not be trying to mislead your readers, but when you use these terms in your writing, they can give the impression that you’re uncertain about what you’re saying, or worse, they can make you seem insincere.
That doesn’t mean you should never use any of the words we’ve mentioned. But before you do, ask yourself if they’re necessary.
In the case of anonymous authorities, think about where you got the information from and try to use a real source whenever possible. Avoid vague statistics by giving a genuine figure if you can find one. And when it comes to adverbs, nine times out of ten, your writing will be stronger if you simply delete them. (Admittedly, we made that statistic up, but it’s probably accurate!)
A good proofreader will not only correct your typos and grammar mistakes, but they’ll also highlight unclear sentences and offer feedback on word choice. If you’d like us to help you finetune your writing, upload a free trial document today.