Wikinews:Avoid weasel words
Weasel words are words or phrases that seemingly support statements without attributing opinions to verifiable sources. Weasel words give the force of authority to a statement without letting the reader decide if the source of the opinion is reliable. If a statement can't stand on its own without weasel words, it lacks neutral point of view; either a source for the statement should be found, or the statement should be removed.
For example, "Montreal is the nicest city in the world," is a biased or normative statement. Application of a weasel word can give the illusion of neutral point of view: "Some people say Montreal is the nicest city in the world."
Although this is an improvement, since it no longer states the opinion as fact, it remains uninformative:
- Who says that? You?
- When did they say it? now?
- How many people think that? Just how many is "some"? "most"??
- What kind of people think that? Where are they?
- What kind of bias might they have?
- Why is this of any significance?
Weasel words don't really give a neutral point of view; they just spread hearsay, or couch personal opinion in vague, indirect syntax. It is better to put a name and a face on an opinion than to assign an opinion to an anonymous source.
Here are some weasel words that are sometimes found in Wikinews articles:
- "Some people say..."
- "Some argue..."
- "Contrary to many..."
- "As opposed to most..."
- "Research has shown..."
- "...is widely regarded as..."
- "...is widely considered to be..."
- "...is thought to be..."
- "It is believed that..."
- "It has been said/suggested/noticed/decided/stated..."
- "Some people believe..."
- "Some feel that..."
- "They say that..."
- "Many people say..."
- "It may be that..."
- "Could it be that..."
- "It could be argued that..."
- "Critics/experts say that..."
- "Some historians argue..."
- "Considered by many..."
- "Critics contend..."
- "Observers say..."
- "Fans say..."
- "Serious scholars/scientists/researchers..."
- "Mainstream scholars/scientists/researchers..."
- "The (mainstream) scientific community"
- "It is claimed..."
- "It should be noted that..."
- "Correctly (justly, properly, ...) or not, ..."
- Anthropomorphisms like "Science says ..." or "Medicine believes ..."
- "...is only one side of the story"
- "Experts suggest..."
The main problem with weasel words is that they interfere with Wikinews' neutral point of view. But there are other problems as well.
- Wordiness. Weasel words are sentence stuffing; they make sentences longer without carrying any information.
- Passive voice. Many weasel words require a sentence to be in the passive voice, e.g. "It has been said that ...". Though the passive voice is syntactically correct, Strunk and White recommend against its overuse in their Elements of Style, calling it "less direct, less bold, and less concise" than the active voice. Even bearing this in mind, the grammatical and linguistic legitimacy of the passive voice in stylistic usage isn't the issue in and of itself as much as the inevitable omission it permits, that of exactly who or what it is behind the words or actions in question. In typical sentences of this form, e.g. "it has been said he has had a shady past", the writer is able to utilize the passive voice to effectively construct a very convincing-sounding instance of a doubly fallacious appeal to authority, not bothering to lend any credibility to the authority in question or even assert its existence, for that matter.
- Convoluted syntax. Weasel words require some convoluted syntax to get a point across. "A square has four sides" is a simple sentence; "Though not universally, squares are widely regarded as having an even number of sides that has been conjectured by experts in the field to be approximately four" wraps the key point in layers of syntactic obfuscation, leaving it to be harvested out of a strange little participial phrase by the reader.
- Use of "clearly" or "obviously". In written language, the word "clearly" is often used to tell the reader that an argument or discussion is clear when it is not. In cases such as these, it is often useful to substitute the claim of "clearly" with actual clear writing.
- Some/many/most/all/few. Sentences like Some people think... lead to arguments about how many people actually think that. Is it some people or most people? How many is many people? As a rule, ad populum arguments should be avoided as a general means of providing support for a position.
- Repetition. Barring prolific levels of creativity, overuse of weasel words leads to very monotonous-sounding articles due to the constraints they impose on sentence structure. It is, sadly, not uncommon to encounter a section detailing different opinions on some subject following the general format of "Some argue... [..] Others respond... [..] Still others point out that [..]" Ad nauseam and potentially ad infinitum (as it is in the nature of controversies of sufficient breadth to have a counter-argument to every argument, and without proper citation the only criterion for the inclusion of any argument becomes that it has, indeed, been expressed by somebody at some indeterminate point of time in the past).
Improving weasel-worded statements
The key to improving weasel words in articles is either a) to name a source for the opinion or b) to change opinionated language to concrete facts. Consider, for example, this weaselly sentence: "Some people have suggested that John Smith may be a functional illiterate." Or the equally as weaselly, "His critics have suggested that John Smith may be a functional illiterate." If a source for the opinion is cited, the readers can decide for themselves how they feel about the source's reliability, e.g.
- "Author Ed Jones, in his book John Smith is an Idiot, wrote an open letter to Smith asking, 'John, are you able to read and write on an adult level?'"
Peacock terms are especially hard to deal with without using weasel words. Again, consider the sentence "The Yankees are the greatest baseball team in history." It's tempting to rephrase this in a weaselly way- for example, "Some people think that the Yankees are the greatest baseball team in history." But how can this opinion be qualified with an opinion holder? There are millions of Yankees fans and hundreds of baseball experts who would pick the Yankees as the best team in history. Instead, it would be better to eliminate the middleman of mentioning this opinion- widespread as it may be- entirely, in favor of the facts that have been the vectors of its adoption:
- "The New York Yankees have won 26 World Series championships -- almost three times as many as any other team."
As with any rule of thumb, this guideline should be balanced against other needs for the text, especially the need for brevity and clarity. Some specific exceptions that may need calling out:
- When the belief or opinion is actually the topic of discussion. For example, "In the Middle Ages, most people believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth."
- When the holders of the opinion are too diverse or numerous to qualify. For example, "Some people prefer dogs as pets; others prefer cats."
- When contrasting a minority opinion. "Although Brahms's work is part of the classical music canon, Benjamin Britten has questioned its value." Brahms's importance is almost, but not quite, an undisputed fact; it's not necessary to source the majority opinion when describing the minority one.
This page is based on a Wikipedia policy, Wikipedia:Avoid weasel words, which is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (history). It is not licensed under the CC-BY license as Wikinews content unless and until completely rewritten.