Weasel Words

3 Min read

2 Book recs on grammar, usage, and style

Toolbox, ages 9 to 99

Improve writing immediately

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One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks eggs it sucks the meat out of the egg and leaves it an empty shell. If you use a weasel word after another there is nothing left of the other.

Theodore Roosevelt

St. Louis speech on May 31, 1916
Weasel sucks eggs

What are weasel words? Lexicographer Bryan A. Garner lists them in his usage manual: candidly, clearly, compelling, duly, frankly, if practicable, manifestly, meaningful, obviously, perfectly, quite, rather, reasonable, seriously, significantly, somewhat, substantially, undue, and virtually.*

Benjamin Dreyer–Copy Chief of Random House–posits a challenge in the first sentence of his style guide.

Go a week without writing: very, rather, really, quite, in fact.

The chapter is three short pages, with lots of white space. Dreyer continues with more of what he dubs Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers.** He does not refer to his list as weasel words, though his descriptions are synonymous, referring to colorless adverbs or adjectives.

And, “of course.” That’s right out. And, “surely.” And “that said.”

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Try it. I dare you. Cut weasel words.

Use them in conversation, but gut them from your writing. I am guilty of using weasel words, especially in early drafts. Writing is rewriting and that means editing for clarity. And cutting. Writers learn that adverbs such as those on Garner’s list and Dreyer’s list weaken a statement. See for yourself.

Example 1. So, candidly, it’s quite reasonable that the young writer is prone to ramble and pontificate, saying nothing, of course, but long lines of drivel cloaked in weaselly garb.

Example 2. AI (Artificial Intelligence) provides meaningful advance in virtually all fields of human endeavor. That said, there is the potential for seriously undue negative impact.

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Look for weasel words in your writing AND in your reading. Uncover the author’s intent, which may veer towards obscuration and dogmatism, rather than reality.

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FOOTNOTES

*Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage: the Authority on Grammar, Usage, and Style. 4th Ed. (Oxford University Press, 2016). Weasel Words, pg. 955. The penultimate manual, the go-to guide for grammar, usage, and style.

**Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English, the Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. (Random House, 2019). Page 3. The title of his first chapter is, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose). He argues that, “..if you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers. . . you will at the end of that week be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.”

*Douglas E. Ott. Hedging, Weasel Words, and Truthiness in Scientific Writing. (National Libary of Medicine, NIH, OCT-DEC 2018). Excerpt: “Scientific writing has become littered with weasel words that hedge, cause ambiguity, introduce conjecture and inference as reliance, resulting in a travesty of intellectual honesty. “A weasel word is a modifying word that undermines or contradicts the meaning of the word, phrase, or clause it accompanies.”1 They are used to intentionally mislead or misinform. The term first appeared in a short story (“Stained Glass Political Platform”) by Chaplin in 1900, who wrote “And what may weasel words be? Why weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it’s as light as a feather, and not very filling when you are hungry, but a basket full of them would make quite a show, and bamboozle the unwary”.

May 15, 2023

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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