Wikipedia:Avoid weasel words

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Weasel words are small words added to the start of a statement, like "some argue that..." or "critics say...", etc. The bad thing about weasel worded statements is that their implication is misleading or too vague to substantiate. Even if an author intended to buttress an argument with an estimate of support, weasel words dilute meaning or make sentences open to multiple interpretations.

Weasel words help to obscure the meaning of biased expressions and are therefore dishonest. For example, an editor might preface the statement "Montreal is the best city in the world" with a disclaimer: "some people say that Montreal is the best city in the world". This is true: some people do say that Montreal is the best city in the world. The problem is that the reverse is true as well (some people say Montreal is not the best city in the world, and some go further and say that it is the worst), and thus it is easy to mislead the reader and to spread hearsay, personal opinion and propaganda, which is contrary to the spirit and the rules of Wikipedia (see WP:V and WP:NPOV).

Another problem is that weasel words can imply that a statement is more controversial than it is. For example, saying "some people claim that Queen was a popular band" unnecessarily raises a (false) question about the statement's truth.

If a statement is true without weasel words, remove them. If they are needed for the statement to be true, consider removing the statement. If there is a genuine opinion, make the preface more specific. Who are these people? When, where, and why did they say that? What kind of bias might they have? How many is "some"? If you consider the different answers these questions might have, you can see how meaningless the "some people say" qualification is. To assist users in deciding how to attribute ideas more precisely, the Wikipedia verifiability policy provides specific criteria for the support a statement must have for it to remain in an article unchallenged. This is one of Wikipedia's core content policies, determining the type and quality of material that is acceptable in articles, and it is this policy that weasel words undermine.

Variations[change | edit source]

There are different variations on weasel wording, with the general principle of introducing some proposition without attributing it to any concrete source. "Most scientists believe that..." fails to provide any evidence that this is indeed the case, or to clarify just where between 50% and 100% "most" is, for that matter. The case is similar with things that are apparently true "according to some studies" or "contrary to popular opinion". "It has been proven that" allusion to proof does not constitute proof, "Science says" that science is an abstract concept which in actuality is not capable of speech, and "it could be argued" that the no original research policy is there for a reason. The word "seemingly" inserted into a statement raises the question of to whom the proposition seems thus, and on what evidentiary basis. And so on.

It is, of course, acceptable to introduce some fact or opinion and attribute it in an inline citation. e.g. "Research by Wong et al, 1996, has shown that rabies can be cured by acupuncture".

And at the bottom of the page:

  • W.F. Wong, A.M. Johnson and R. Goodrich (1996). "Acupuncture: An effective cure for rabies". J. Rabid Med. 345: 33-67.

Other problems[change | edit source]

Weasel words often create other problems in the text. Some of these are:

  • Wordiness. Weasel words may constitute sentence stuffing: they may make a sentence longer without carrying any information.
  • Passive voice. Though it is possible to make weasel-worded statements in the active voice, often they lead the writer to resort to the passive voice — e.g., "It has been said that...". While the passive voice is grammatically correct and sometimes appropriate, its overuse makes an article unnecessarily wordy or vague.
  • Convoluted syntax. Weasel words may require 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, the number of which has been conjectured by experts in the field to be approximately four" is not. We should aim to inform, not to provide challenges in reading comprehension.
  • Implicit endorsement of faulty logic.
    • The word "clearly" and other words of its kind are often a form of handwaving which asserts that a conclusion has been demonstrated. Wikipedia articles should not be making arguments in the first place. Simply state facts, cite the sources of them, and let the readers draw their own conclusions.
    • Many people think... is often a lead-in to a bandwagon fallacy. It wasn't put there to establish the context of the following statement, but rather to lead the reader to accept a conclusion based on a claim that "many" others believe it. Cite recognized experts to establish the truth of a statement; don't allude to an anonymous crowd.
  • Repetition. There are only so many creative ways to phrase the general idea of "it has been asserted that", and an article constructed entirely of variations on this theme can get painfully repetitive. The requirement to properly cite and specify exactly who has asserted what, when, and why is what stands between the article and a bloated, incoherent piece documenting everything that might have conceivably been said on the subject by anybody, ever. (In some particularly dreadful cases, unchecked articles degenerate all the way to thread mode - a continuous dialogue of partisan commentary along the lines of "Some argue... [..] Others respond... [..] Still others point out that [..]" ad nauseam.)
  • Partisan opinions. Editors with opposing views might revert to using weasel words in order to draw attention to instances of partisanship, without engaging in an edit war particularly against a special interest group. For example, an editor might rephrase the statement "Such and such hereto proven authority wrote: Timbuktu is a God forsaken place" into "Such and such individual have asserted that arguably Timbuktu is a God forsaken place." The use of weasel words, as means of last resort against partisanship does not improve the quality of content. Instead, attention can be drawn to opinionated language by asking for a third opinion at WP:ST. However, when dealing with a political agenda of more than one opponent, abandoning the subject with the appropriate note on the article’s Talk page might not be a bad idea, since Wikipedia is not pre-designed to uphold the balance or pin down extremism supported by reliable sources.

Improving weasel-worded statements[change | edit source]

The {{weasel}} tag can be added to the top of an article or section to draw attention to the presence of weasel words. For less drastic cases, the {{weasel word}} tag ([weasel word]), or the {{who?}} tag ([who?]) (all of which include an internal wikilink to this page) can be added directly to the phrase in question; same as the {{fact}} tag ([source?]).

The key to improving weasel words in articles is either a) to name a source for the opinion (attribution) or b) to change opinionated language to concrete facts (substantiate it).[1]

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 is 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 entirely, in favour of the facts that support the assertion:

  • "The New York Yankees have won 26 World Series championships—about three times as many as any other team."[2]

This fact suggests that the Yankees are a superlative baseball franchise, rather than simply the greatest baseball team in history. The idea is to let the readers draw their own conclusions about the Yankees' greatness based on the number of World Series the Yankees have won. Objectivity over subjectivity. Dispassion, not bias.

Fuzzy exceptions[change | edit source]

As with any rule of thumb, this guideline should be balanced against other needs for the text, especially the need for brevity and clarity. While ideally every assertion and assumption that is not necessarily true would have the various positions on it detailed and referenced, in practice much of human knowledge relies on the probably true rather than the necessarily true, and actually doing this would result in the article devolving into an incoherent jumble of backtracking explanations and justifications.

This means that asking "Who?" ought not to be an automatic process, but rather a judgment call. How controversial is the statement being made? How prominent are alternative views? How relevant would introducing the controversy be to the progression of this specific article — relevant enough to be worth whatever strain on the narrative that will result? These are the important questions to be asking when dealing with citation issues.

Clear exceptions[change | edit source]

This guideline doesn't apply, if

  • the belief or opinion is actually the topic of discussion ("These people believe that our planet is flat"); or
  • your source backs you up: that is, the source identifies a person or group and reports on what they actually said or wrote. But see WP:UNDUE for policy regarding how much weight to give any one person or group.


References[change | edit source]

  1. See Attributing and substantiating biased statements in the Neutral point of view policy.
  2. "World Series History". Baseball Almanac. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/ws/wsmenu.shtml. Retrieved 2007-06-04.