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MANUSCRIPTS BURN

"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Weasel Words

I'm glad I came across this article today, not because of its nonsensical premise, but because it reminded me of a topic I've never covered here on the blog:

WEASEL WORDS

This is a passive construction:

Susie (object) was fired (verb phrase.) 

This is an active construction: 

John (subject) fired (verb) Susie (object.)

Passive voice naturally distances the subject from the action, if not eliminating it from the sentence entirely, and so we use it when we want to avoid assigning responsibility (or especially when we want to avoid personally taking responsibility.)  We act as though the action which occurred was inevitable by assigning blame to the object which was acted upon.  When someone uses passive voice is a good indicator that he is trying to avoid blame.  This is not a universal rule, though.  Here, for example, is a legitimate use of passive voice:

Fifty votes are required to pass the bill.

Although “the bill” is the subject, the bill itself has no particular wants or desires.  It certainly does not “require” anything of its own volition.  So the writer of this sentence is probably using passive voice as a matter of clarity rather than to protect the bill from unwanted scrutiny. 

However, passive voice can also be used to dodge blame.  See if you can identify any differences between these sentences:

Richard Nixon ordered five men to break into the Watergate Hotel and steal some documents from his political rivals.

and:

Mistakes were made.

Using the passive voice in this manner is an example of “weasel wording.”  Weasel words suck all the meaning out of the words around them, just as weasels sucks the yolk out of the eggs around them.  The point of using active voice is to ensure clarity and to avoid weaseling.  The commander of C Company can easily avoid being court-martialed for ignoring this order:

The hill is to be taken.

As opposed to:

Company C will take the hill.

However, passive construction is not the only example of weasel words we use to avoid blame.  Here are some others to be wary of:

It is said… (by who?)
Many believe… (oh do they?)
Clearly or It stands to reason… (implies the premise is undeniable)
There is evidence that… (there is also evidence against)
One wonders… (well, actually, you wonder)
Up to 50% off! (0% falls into the "less than 50%” category)
120% bigger! (than what?  the last model?  a competitor?)
4 out of 5 dentists agree! (for all I know you cherry-picked 4 dentists you knew would agree.)
Common sense tells us… (does it now?)
Experience shows that… (my experience or your experience?  or some random person’s?)
Experts say… (two experts paid by your company?  or the entire scientific community?)
It has been decided… (by who?)
Often or Many or Probably (qualifiers make statements vague enough to be useless)

If you were paying attention you probably caught this sentence earlier:

Passive voice can also be used to dodge blame.

There are two examples of weasel wording in this sentence.  The phrase “can be used” raises the question “By whom?”  The passive construction also eliminates the subject from the sentence entirely.
So, after that little lesson, let's return our attention to the delightful article that reminded me of this topic.  Here's the sentence that made me stop in my tracks and write this blog post:

Harvard's Lawrence Katz has calculated that even if all the gains of the top 1% were redistributed to the 99%, household incomes would go up by less than half of what they would if everyone had a college degree.

This is the most comprehensive example of weasel-wording I've seen since Nixon's "Mistakes were made."  Let's list all of the examples of weasel wording the author used in this one short sentence:

1.  Harvard's... (Harvard's what?  groundskeeper?)
2.  ...Lawrence Katz... (I'd like to assign the expert fallacy to this, but I have no idea who he is.  is he an expert at all?  and if so, is he the only expert who says this?)
3.  ...has calculated... (based on?  using which criteria?)
4.  ...even if... (dismissive qualifier)
5.  ...all the gains... (meaning how much?  6 trillion dollars?  $30?  how do you define a "gain?")
6.  ...were redistributed... (by who?  not to mention, in what fashion?  this is classic passive voice.)
7.  ...top 1%...99%... (vague terms undefined in the article, but how delightful that they contain numbers so they sound so exact!) 
8.  ...household incomes... (I'm guessing you mean 100% of household incomes, but, shit, I don't even know who Lawrence Katz is based on your article, let alone what sample sizes he was using)
9.  ...less than half... (how much less than half?  49%?  18%?  those are both less than half.)
10.  ...half of what they would if everyone had a college degree... (this amount is also undefined, but best of all it's used as a benchmark for how much the other undefined amount is!  So X < Y/2, but we don't know what "X" is, what "Y" is, or HOW MUCH LESS either one is than the other!  this should really count as two or three examples of weasel wording, but I can't even parse it out that far, so I'll be kind and call it just one.)

I kind of feel bad letting you down, my loyal blogketeers, because I'm sure there are more examples of weasel words and I'm just not enough of a grammar expert to spot them.  (Theresa and Alicia, I'm looking in your direction...)  But I still spotted ten instances of weasel wording in ONE SENTENCE of this article.  And this is a very short article.  I'm sure she didn't want to drag it out because the whole premise is so ridiculous and the longer anyone would spend reading it, the more ludicrous they would find it.

Because, to be frank, I've just been assessing this sentence grammatically.  After doing some research, I found that Lawrence Katz is an economics professor at Harvard, so it's entirely possible his analysis is valid, although for all I know he could have just made a logical guess (i.e., pulled the numbers out of his ass.)  Or he could be a kook who everyone else in the economic community dismisses.  OR HE COULD BE THE GREATEST ECONOMIST OF ALL TIME.  The point is, I don't know, and this article makes no attempt to tell me.  I didn't even get into the whole premise of this sentence, which is farcical.

Let's say everyone in America DID get a college degree.  (I guess that would be 100% of adults over the age of 22 healthy enough to work?  I don't really know who "everyone" is in this scenario.)  I'll ignore for a moment the seemingly magical means by which we would obtain this result.  Let's say, for instance, that higher education was made both free (as in Portugal) and mandatory (as in the magical land of Oz.)  In what sense would that change the job market?  It would just mean that garbage men have degrees in modern dance.  Because garbage man would still be a job that had to be filled that doesn't require a degree, and there's no reason why the wages for being a garbage man would go up just because everyone in America got a degree.  More than likely, since the baseline had changed, it would simply mean that having a bachelor's degree would become the modern day equivalent of having a high school diploma...and all professionals would have to have a master's or higher.

But now I'm getting away from weasel words and into actual content.  It seems clear, though, that the reason why the author felt the need to use so many weasel words was because she had so little actual content.  Take this as an object lesson, young and aspiring writers.

UPDATE (5/8/12):  The lovely folks at Edit Torrent have, in fact gotten back to me, and even graciously reposted my link at their site.  I'm enjoying some of the comments over there.  Here's a brilliant example of weasel words specific to academia, thanks to Ashlyn Macnamara.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the email letting us know about this post. I know who Lawrence Katz is, and I know some of his work, so I wasn't as confused by that sentence. But I can see that it might be confusing if you weren't already familiar with either. Know your audience! :) It's possible to "shorthand" certain concepts for certain audiences -- by using terms of art, for example -- without a loss of clarity. This isn't quite the same thing as weasel words, but the concepts are very similar.

    Theresa

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, very cool! Thanks for checking it out.

      Delete

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