Last updated: 03/03/2016
Why am I referring to a small carnivorous mammal with a slippery reputation? Well, if you are writing, particularly to persuade and influence others, then you need to be aware of what a weasel word is and how to avoid it. In short – you’ll get better writing.
What are weasel words?
A weasel word is something that someone says either to avoid answering a question clearly or to make someone believe something that is not true (Cambridge Dictionaries Online).
Generally, it’s an informal term used to making unsupported claims seem more convincing. They’re used to give the impression of authority but allowing for deniability if challenged.
“It could be a good investment”
“You are almost certain to enjoy this”
“Our company is one of the biggest”
“Our service will likely save you money”
“It’s commonly known that…”
“Leaves dishes virtually spotless”
“Helps fight bad breath”
Other weasel-y words
- Studies show/reveal (what studies? Provide a link to the study as proof)
- Evidence shows (as above)
- People say (what people exactly?)
Why you shouldn’t use weasel words
At best your customers will think your company lacks confidence, at worst, they will see you as cheating. Avoiding unsubstantiated claims maintains your company’s integrity, so use them at your peril.
Ferret them out
You may not be using them intentionally but you need to take a good look and spot anything with a whiff of weasel about it.
The key here is to ask yourself: Can you back your statements up with evidence if challenged?
Revisit the statement in question. If it is true without the weasel words, then remove them. If you can’t use the statement without the weasel words consider removing the statement completely and writing something else.
Remember to “Show don’t Tell”. If you want to use the word ‘best’ then back it up with evidence. Have you come top in a survey for one of your products? Were you listed in the top ten businesses in your local area? Do you have a certain number of positive reviews on a website?
- Exact figures or detail in place of the weasel word(s)
- Footnotes to give details, figures, names etc.
- 85% of respondents said…
- With a 78% approval rating from [reviewers on a particular website]
- As voted for by [name of survey]
- The 5 supporting studies cited in the appendix show that…
Be effective in your content writing from the start
Familiarise yourself with weasel words so you don’t use them in the first place. You can also avoid being tricked by them as a consumer.
Changing Minds has some great examples of weasel words.
Tony Goodson takes an amusing look at weasel words here,
Finally, if you want to go further, check out Chambers Weasel Words: 200 words you shouldn’t trust