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MHS Library | Academic writing

Weasel words

 

Weasel words are words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated. A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority, yet has no substantial basis. Phrases such as those above present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint. They may disguise a biased view. Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe, and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proved should be clearly attributed. 

The examples above are not automatically weasel words. They may also be used in the lead section of an article or in a topic sentence of a paragraph, and the article body or the rest of the paragraph can supply attribution. Likewise, views that are properly attributed to a reliable source may use similar expressions, if those expressions accurately represent the opinions of the source. (Source: Wikipedia)

Expressions of doubt

Words such as supposedapparentalleged and purported can imply that a given point is inaccurate, although alleged and accused are appropriate when wrongdoing is asserted but undetermined, such as with people awaiting or undergoing a criminal trial; when these are used, ensure that the source of the accusation is clear. So-called can mean commonly named, falsely named, or contentiously named, and it can be difficult to tell these apart. Simply called is preferable for the first meaning; detailed and attributed explanations are preferable for the others.

Editorialising

The use of adverbs such as notably and interestingly, and phrases such as it should be noted, to highlight something as particularly significant or certain without attributing that opinion should usually be avoided so as to maintain an impartial tone. Words such as fundamentallyessentially, and basically can indicate particular interpretative viewpoints, and thus should also be attributed in controversial cases. Care should be used with actually, which implies that a fact is contrary to expectations; make sure this is verifiable and not just assumed. Clearlyobviouslynaturally, and of course all presume too much about the reader's knowledge and perspective and often amount to verbiage. Wikipedia should not take a view as to whether an event was fortunate or not.

More subtly, editorializing can produce implications that are not supported by the sources. When used to link two statements, words such as butdespitehowever, and although may imply a relationship where none exists, possibly unduly calling the validity of the first statement into question while giving undue weight to the credibility of the second.

 

Euphemisms

The word died is neutral and accurate; avoid euphemisms such as passed away. Likewise, have sex is neutral; the euphemism make love is presumptuous. Some words that are proper in many contexts also have euphemistic senses that should be avoided: do not use issue for problem or disputecivilian casualties should not be masked as collateral damage.

If a person has an affliction, or is afflicted, say just that; living with is presumptuous. Norms vary for expressions concerning disabilities and disabled people. The goal is to express ideas clearly and directly without causing unnecessary offense. Do not assume that plain language is inappropriate.

Wikipedia's Manual of Style

This guide is adapted from Wikipedia's Manual of Style for Wikipedia editors. This guide is useful for academic writing in general.

This page in a nutshell: Be cautious with expressions that may introduce bias, lack precision, or include offensive terms. Use clear, direct language. Let facts alone do the talking. (Source: Wikipedia)

Puffery

Words such as these are often used without attribution to promote the subject of an article, while neither imparting nor plainly summarizing verifiable information. They are known as "peacock terms" by Wikipedia contributors.[2] Instead of making unprovable proclamations about a subject's importance, use facts and attribution to demonstrate that importance.

Peacock example
Bob Dylan is the defining figure of the 1960s counterculture and a brilliant songwriter.
Just the facts
Dylan was included in Time's 100: The Most Important People of the Century, in which he was called "master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation".[refs 1] By the mid-1970s, his songs had been covered by hundreds of other artists.

Contentious labels

Value-laden labels—such as calling an organization a cult, an individual a racist or sexistterrorist, or freedom fighter, or a sexual practice a perversion—may express contentious opinion and are best avoided unless widely used by reliable sources to describe the subject, in which case use in-text attribution. Avoid myth in its informal sense, and establish the scholarly context for any formal use of the term.

The prefix pseudo‑ indicates that something is false or spurious, which may be debatable. The suffix ‑gate suggests the existence of a scandal. Use these in articles only when they are in wide use externally, e.g. Gamergate controversy, with in-text attribution if in doubt. Rather than describing an individual using the subjective and vague term controversial, instead give readers information about relevant controversies. Make sure, as well, that reliable sources establish the existence of a controversy and that the term is not used to grant a fringe viewpoint undue weight.

Synonyms for 'said'

In some types of writing, repeated usage of said is considered tedious, and writers are encouraged to employ synonyms. Avoid language that makes undue implications.

Saidstateddescribedwrotecommented, and according to are almost always neutral and accurate. Extra care is needed with more loaded terms. For example, to write that a person clarifiedexplainedexposedfoundpointed out, or revealed something can imply it is true, instead of simply conveying the fact that it was said. To write that someone insistednotedobservedspeculated, or surmised can suggest the degree of the person's carefulness, resoluteness, or access to evidence, even when such things are unverifiable.

To write that someone asserted or claimed something can call their statement's credibility into question, by emphasizing any potential contradiction or implying a disregard for evidence. Similarly, be judicious in the use of admitconfessreveal, and denyparticularly for living people, because these verbs can inappropriately imply culpability.

Cliches and idioms

Clichés and idioms are generally to be avoided in favor of direct, literal expressions. Lion's share is often misunderstood; instead use a term such as all, mosttwo-thirds, or whatever matches the context. The tip of the iceberg should be reserved for discussions of icebergs. If something is seen as wasteful excess, do not refer to it as gilding the lily or a white elephant; instead, describe the wasteful endeavor in terms of the actions or events that led to the excess. Instead of writing that someone took the plunge, state their actions matter-of-factly. If a literal interpretation of a phrase makes no sense in the context of a sentence, then the sentence should be reworded. Some idioms are only common in certain parts of the world, and many readers are not native speakers of English; articles should not presume familiarity with particular phrases. Wiktionary has a lengthy list of English idioms, some of which should be avoided.

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