Want to write better? Limit your use of weasel words.
What’s a weasel word? According to Josh Bernoff in his book Writing Without Bullshit, “A weasel word is an adjective, adverb, or noun that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision . . . they’re the words that writers use to make flimsy generalizations that are not provable or defensible.”
Even Teddy Roosevelt disliked weasel words. Here’s what he said In a speech in St. Louis on May 31, 1916:
One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks out 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.
A Few Examples
Consider these two phrases:
- Tim is an honest person.
- Tim is a very honest person.
Which is the stronger statement? The first one, which omits the intensifier “very”, is stronger. Before using an intensifier, try the sentence without it and see if your statement isn’t stronger without it.
- American adults often don’t get enough sleep.
- One in three American adults doesn’t get enough sleep.
The second statement, which quantifies the problem (one in three), is stronger than the first statement, which merely says “often.” Whenever you use a word like “often”, “most”, “rarely”, or “few”, ask yourself if you should do a bit of research to be specific about your point. Here’s another example of this point:
- Google Chrome is the browser of choice for most internet users.
- Google Chrome is the browser of choice for 70% of internet users.
See how including the data in the second statement (70%) is stronger than saying “most” in the first statement?
Common Weasel Words
Weasel words are qualifiers or intensifiers. Here are the common weasel words to look out for:
Since I’ve learned about weasel words I see them everywhere. And it’s hard to avoid using them when you write.
Why We Should Avoid Weasel Words
In our writing, we should strive to say what we mean and do so clearly. Weasel words signal a lack of confidence or laziness; we’re hedging when we use these words. Josh Bernoff notes that “writers use weasel words is to avoid the necessary research to get precise answers.” Weasel words creep into my writing when I’m not sure about my topic. Avoiding their use causes me to decide between being more confident about my point or doing some research so I can be confident.
Limiting our use of weasel words is challenging. Even while writing this IFOD on not using weasel words I’ve caught myself multiple times reaching for them.