Weasel words

Last updated: Friday, September 18, 2015


Courtesy of Simon Wills
Everybody uses language to subtly alter meaning and to shape opinion. It’s not wrong, but an awareness of the techniques guards you against being manipulated, and may give you ideas on how to use language differently yourself.

You may recognise some methods from advertising and the media; others you will see used in journals and professional communications. We’ll look briefly at a few examples.


The right verb

Changing your verb can completely change the emphasis of a sentence:

  • The authors explain that blogapril improves asthma control. (A neutral kind of statement)
  • The authors claim that blogapril improves asthma control. (There is doubt)
  • The authors show that blogapril revolutionises asthma control. (It’s proved! The drug’s a miracle!)

Simple changes of verb might make us react differently to the evidence. In one example we’re suspicious of the authors; in the other we’re expecting a ground-breaking therapy.

Nouns and adjectives 

Writers may pick the ones that sound most enticing:

  • Blogapril is the best treatment for…
  • Blogapril is the most effective treatment for…
  • Blogapril is an exciting innovation for…

Introducing words like ‘best’, ‘effective’ and ‘innovation’ don’t really mean anything, but they make us feel well-disposed towards blogapril. This can colour our attitude towards the evidence.

Being vague

Sometimes there is a need for vagueness. For example, if the evidence we wish to communicate is uncertain we might not want to recommend a definite course of action when there’s little data to back us up. Occasionally we may need to avoid potential legal redress by not committing ourselves in writing.
One of the ways we all do this is by using modal auxiliary verbs. There are nine classic ones: may, might, can, could, will, would, shall, should, must. They express possibility, doubt, permission, and so forth and form a hierarchy of certainty. For example:

  • You must prescribe blogapril. (You have to!)
  • You should prescribe blogapril. (Go on, you can do it! But I can’t make you)
  • You can prescribe blogapril. (It’s an option)
  • You could prescribe blogapril. (A slightly more debatable option)
  • You might prescribe blogapril. (Bit dodgy, though)

So, when you read or use these words you should be a little on your guard. They are often used because the author does not want to be precise. These are the classic ‘weasel words’.

Another form of vagueness is to use ‘weakening words', as the following examples illustrate:

  • Patients can often tolerate drug X… (but not every patient, and perhaps not your patient)
  • Your patient may possibly respond to… (unlikely, but I feel obliged to mention it)
  • You could consider prescribing… (but it’s definitely your call)
  • Options to reduce risk include...(I don’t know every option or I don’t know what’s best. You choose.)

Again, this ‘vagueness’ can be professionally useful and is not wrong. But you should still be aware of the nuances. When a writer talks about an “option to be considered”, it is not necessarily one to recommend! We use ‘weakening words’ and modal auxiliary verbs to indicate uncertainty, or to highlight a number of options, but we shouldn’t hide behind words to avoid responsibility. It’s better to be up-front about the reasons for your uncertainty when you can:

- The evidence is so limited that I would advise…
- There are a number of drug options, but none are licensed and none are recommended in the national guidelines for this condition.
- This treatment has significant safety concerns and so has not been widely used.

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