Weasel Words (aka Unsupported Attributions)

One important element of librarianship is evaluating information. The best decisions are made using the most reliable information. However, deciding what is reliable and what is not reliable can sometimes be a tricky task. One good tool for evaluating information is being able to recognize “weasel words.”

Wikipedia (which is an excellent example of a source that is sometimes reliable and sometimes not) has a great definition of weasel wording and a list of examples. When you see the following in an editorial, an essay, or any source of information, it’s a good idea to pause for a moment and think about what the writer is really saying.

“Weasel words” are statements which appear to assert something but subtly imply something different, opposite or stronger in the way they are made. A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority with no substantial basis. Phrases such as those below present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint. They may disguise a biased view. Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe, and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proved should be clearly attributed. However, views which are properly attributed to a reliable source may use similar expressions if they accurately represent the opinions of the source.

… some people say, many scholars state, it is believed, many are of the opinion, most feel, experts declare, it is often reported, it is widely thought, research has shown, science says …

Here are some examples of phrases that indicate unsupported attributions —

“A growing body of evidence…” (Where is the raw data for your review?)
“People say…” (Which people? How do they know?)
“It has been claimed that…” (By whom, where, when?)
“Critics claim…” (Which critics?)
“Clearly…” (As if the premise is undeniably true)
“It stands to reason that…” (Again, as if the premise is undeniably true—see “Clearly” above)
“Questions have been raised…” (Implies a fatal flaw has been discovered)
“I heard that…” (Who told you? Is the source reliable?)
“There is evidence that…” (What evidence? Is the source reliable?)
“Experience shows that…” (Whose experience? What was the experience? How does it demonstrate this?)
“It has been mentioned that…” (Who are these mentioners? Can they be trusted?)
“Popular wisdom has it that…” (Is popular wisdom a test of truth?)
“Commonsense has it/insists that…” (The common sense of whom? Who says so? See “Popular wisdom” above, and “It is known that” below)
“It is known that…” (By whom and by what method is it known?)
“Officially known as…” (By whom, where, when—who says so?)
“It turns out that…” (How does it turn out?¹)
“It was noted that…” (By whom, why, when?)
“Nobody else’s product is better than ours.” (What is the evidence of this?)
“Studies show…” (what studies?)
“A recent study at a leading university…” (How recent is your study? At what university?)
“(The phenomenon) came to be seen as…” (by whom?)
“Some argue…” (who?)
“Up to sixty percent…” (so, 59%? 50%? 10%?)
“More than seventy percent…” (How many more? 70.01%? 80%? 90%?)
“The vast majority…” (All, more than half—how many?)

As my history professor used to always tell me — be specific.


2 responses to “Weasel Words (aka Unsupported Attributions)

  1. I like this a lot….I wonder who uses these weasel words the most….politicians or reporters?

  2. It’s interesting that the three comments I received on this post (two spoken and your written comment) all mentioned reporters. Perhaps I should ask some of our student journalists what they think about using unsupported attributions.