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Get Rid of Those Pesky "Weasel Words"

Weasel is language that sounds wishy-washy, even sneaky. It avoids saying anything definitively. Instead, every assertion is qualified to death. Words and phrases are constantly used to hedge the meaning of what’s being said. Weasel is a particular combination of vocabulary choices and sentence structures. Specifically, it involves using:
• Weasel words
• Passive voice
• Subjunctive mood

Weasel Words There are certain “weasel words” that modify the meaning of what you’re saying to the point that you appear to be saying one thing when you’re actually saying the exact opposite. Weasel words and phrases include “may,” “might,” “could,” “can,” “can be,” “virtually,” “up to,” “as much as,” “help,” “like,” “believe,” “possibly,” and similar qualifiers that create enough wiggle room for a rhino.

Some of the weasel words are qualifiers. They give us protection, “plausible deniability,” as they say in Washington, D.C. Something “might” happen. Results “may” indicate. It’s normal in the course of business to use terms like these, because you don’t want to appear to make a commitment you can’t keep. (Or your lawyers don’t want you to make a commitment that could cause a dispute later on.) “Our analysis indicates that productivity in the Sheridan facility could increase more than 10% once we use the new sequential staging routine in the warehouse.” Okay, we honestly believe productivity will go up and our numbers suggest about 10%, but let’s face it—the warehouse could get hit by a tornado next week and then what happens to productivity? A little caution in the way we say this seems reasonable. We’re not trying to mislead anybody.

Sometimes people use these qualifiers with the deliberate intention of creating a false impression. A few years ago, one of the contenders in the heated battle for enterprise software claimed “100% customer satisfaction” in giant headlines in its ads. It was only when you probed into the microprint at the bottom of the page that you found the qualifications that made that statistic meaningless.

A different kind of problem arises when we start using weasel words all the time, even when there’s no need to qualify or soften the assertions we’re making. If that kind of language becomes a habit, we create the impression that we’re being sneaky. That’s not a good move. Or, to put it in Weasel, “we might create the impression that we’re possibly being sneaky. That may not be a good move.”

Passive Voice You may have seen the term “passive voice” if you have used the Microsoft Word function that checks your spelling and grammar. The little editing gremlins inside Word put a squiggly line under your verb, and when you right-click on the offending phrase you get a message saying: Passive Voice (consider revising). But what does that mean? How do we change it? And why is passive voice bad anyway?

To answer the last question first: Nothing is wrong with it in a grammatical sense. It’s a perfectly legal way of constructing a sentence in English. But it tends to be harder to decode, and sometimes it’s not as clear. As a result, if you use a lot of passive voice constructions, your writing will be harder to read than it has to be.

As for what the term means: “Voice” is simply a bit of grammar jargon that describes the relationship between the subject of a sentence and the verb. In English, we have three different ways to construct sentences based on voice: active, passive, and imperative. In an active voice sentence, the subject does the action described by the verb. For example: We presented our revised design to the client’s architectural review team on Tuesday.

We is the subject of that sentence. And what did We do? Well, obviously, We presented. But what if we want to put that sentence into passive voice? In a passive voice sentence, the grammatical subject doesn’t do anything. Instead, it receives the action. If we were to flip our sample sentence around into passive voice, we’d write: The revised design was presented to the client’s architectural review team on Tuesday.

Design is now the subject of the sentence, and the design didn’t do anything. It had something happen to it—it was presented. It means almost the same thing as the active voice sentence. The difference is one of emphasis. In the first sentence, the focus is on the event—the fact that we presented the design. In the second version, we place emphasis on what we presented: The design, not the budget, was presented. Notice, however, that we are no longer as clear about who did the presentation. Passive voice is sometimes confusing about responsibility for an action—which makes it perfect, I suppose, for those writers who are trying to duck responsibility.

We use imperative voice when we are giving an order or providing directions. In an imperative voice sentence, the grammatical subject is left understood—it’s you who will be doing the action named in the sentence. Here’s the same concept in imperative voice: Present our revised design to the client’s architectural review team on Tuesday.

Now somebody in charge is giving us an order. This definitely has a different meaning than the first two versions, because implicitly the presentation hasn’t taken place yet. That’s why we’re being told to do it.

So far, so good. So what’s the big deal in using passive voice? Why does it matter? There are two reasons. First, passive voice inverts the normal word order—the sentence structure that we spontaneously generate about 90 percent of the time and that we hear and read almost as frequently. That lack of familiarity makes it just that little bit harder to decode. Second, as I indicated earlier, if you fail to identify who did the action, a passive voice sentence can be ambiguous, confusing, or even misleading.

Subjunctive Mood The third element of Weasel is the overuse of subjunctive mood. More grammar jargon! But this is pretty easy to understand. When we’re talking about something that’s true or real, we use indicative mood: As your accountant, I strongly advise you to increase your quarterly withholding amount to avoid facing a serious cash shortage at tax payment time.

If somebody who’s not actually our accountant gave us that advice, she might (if she were good at grammar) phrase it in the subjunctive mood: If I were your accountant, I would strongly advise you to increase your quarterly withholding amount to avoid facing a serious cash shortage at tax payment time.

You can see the difference easily enough, I’m sure, but I highlighted the unusual verb forms that put the sentence into subjunctive mood. We use subjunctive mood to state something that’s fictional or hypothetical. The problem—the Weasel element—arises when we use it to state something that shouldn’t be hypothetical at all. If we use subjunctive to communicate something that should be a direct statement of fact or opinion, we create confusion.

Some of the ugliest, most notorious examples of Weasel emerge when a public figure has to apologize for bad behavior. President Richard M. Nixon demonstrated his mastery of Weasel when he resigned the presidency in disgrace. As he left office he said, “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”

Notice first of all that even as he’s getting the bum’s rush out of the White House, he still doesn’t acknowledge that anything he did or authorized to be done caused any injuries. “I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done…” That sort of sounds like an apology without actually being one. The latter half of his comments, where he acknowledges that some of his “judgments were wrong,” is qualified away into a verbal form of laughing gas when he says that all of his judgments were made “in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”

Tricky Dick, indeed! But we see equally masterful uses of Weasel among the people we work with every day. Read these sentences and ask yourself: Do I trust these people?

Why doesn’t Weasel work? What makes this writing sound weak and phony? The problems arise from making big claims unsupported by even a sliver of proof. World-class results? Says who? Best-of-breed products? By what standards? Seamless? And what does that mean, anyway? Ask yourself questions like these as you read your own writing and you’ll quickly know whether it’s Weasel.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from The Language of Success by Tom Sant. Copyright 2008, Tom Sant. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. For information about other AMACOM books, visit www.amanet.org/books