How to fix weasel words

weasel words
Photo: Cliff1066 via Flickr

Weasel words weaken prose. But how do you fix them?

First, what exactly is a weasel word?

A weasel word is an adjective, adverb, noun, or verb that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision.

Think of words like “deeply,” “most,” “backer,” and “tends to.” They express emotion, but mean little. I know why you use them. You don’t want to make a bald, definitive statement that might not be true, because there are always exceptions. You think these words sound forceful without committing you. But qualifiers like “deeply,” and “most” and even “very” are just so much powdered sugar on your writing. As they pile up, they make you sound less bold, not bolder. So learn to kick the habit.

The first step is to identify them.

Adverbs are the worst offenders. If I am “deeply” committed to Black Lives Matter, how is that any different from being committed? Adverbs of intensity and frequency (“very”, “often”) lack precision and leave a lot of room for weaseling.

Adjectives are a mixed bag — some, like “female”, “upper-middle class,” and “mobile” have a degree of precision and meaning, while others, like “fast” or “cheap” are weasel words that have no definition. (Is it “fast” to get a cable repair guy in a week after you call for help?).

Nouns like “masses” and “lots” have similarly loose definitions. And helping verbs like “tends to” qualify and weaken writing.

It’s pretty hard to write without any of these intensifiers (like “pretty hard” in this very sentence). But every time you write one, you should think twice.

This is where people get stuck. You put them there for a reason: you didn’t want to make a blanket statement when you know there are exceptions, or you’re trying to make a vague statement seem stronger. Here are some strategies that will help you be bold and truthful at the same time. I’ve italicized the weasel words in these examples to make them stand out.

  • Delete the weasel word and see if the sentence is still true. If you wrote “Donald Trump is frequently disdainful of media figures,” why not just write “Donald Trump is disdainful of media”? It’s still a generalization, but much stronger now, even if it falls short of “disdainful of all media.”
  • Make a more specific statement. Don’t write “Many CIOs lack power” if you really mean “CIOs in large, public companies lack power.” Narrow down the class about which you’re generalizing to say something more meaningful.
  • Quantify. It’s true that “Most American households own stocks.” But it’s far more interesting if you can say that “According to Gallup, 55% of US households now own stocks, which is down from 62% in 2008.” Google is a wonderful thing, it turns up all sorts of interesting numbers. Any time you write “millions” or “billions,” see if you can substitute an actual number.
  • Use expressive verbs. Don’t just point out that “The city councillor strongly supports gun control.” Explain that “She advocates for gun control at all her political rallies.” Words like “votes for,” “denigrates,” or “budgets for” tell more about levels of support than adverbs like “strongly” or “deeply.” Say what people do, not just what they feel.
  • Rewrite based on what you actually believe. If you can’t do any of the above, ask yourself what you’re actually ready to say. Maybe you’re not comfortable with a generalization like “Pharmaceutical companies are only out for profit.” You could weasel by saying “I’m worried that many big pharmaceutical companies are focused on money.” But surely you can say something stronger. You could say “The profit motive is corrupting the drug business.” You could say “As long as drug companies are public companies, money will influence their decisions.” Those are a lot better than “I’m worried” and “many big pharmaceutical companies.”

Gird your loins, triumph over your fear, and kill those weasels that are undermining your writing. If you’re smart, the result will be definitive without being reckless.

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  1. Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

  2. These are great tips that I can use immediately. I just suggested that my entire team read this. And I’m off to check my latest draft for weasel words!