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May 9, 2002 - Weasel Words - 2002-05-08

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 9, 2002
Rebroadcast on VOA News Now: May 12, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- advice for battling weasels of a wordy sort.

RS: Weasels are small, nasty animals. Their reputation gives us slang expressions like "weasel words" -- language that's deceptive or evasive, or just simply does not say much.

AA: Ronald Walters has seen plenty of weasel words in thirty years of grading student papers. He's a professor of American history at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. High on his list of words to avoid are phrases that could sound self-important, like "one might conclude" or "as it were" -- as in this recent example:

WALTERS: "'One might conclude that we are in a depression, as it were,' instead of 'we're in a depression.'"

RS: "Now do students use these words because that's the way they talk?"

WALTERS: "I think they use them partly because they don't want to take too strong a stand and some of them they use because they want to sound important. So 'one might conclude that,' I think, is just pretentious. They just want to sound like they're writing in an academic style, even though that's not an academic style. Phrases like 'to a certain degree,' 'in some cases,' 'it may seem that,' I think they're just hedging."

AA: "Isn't that what some of these hedge words are for, where you want to qualify and say, well in some case it's this, and to a certain extent it's that?"

WALTERS: "Yeah, and I think it's distinguishing those from the just-hedging-bets that makes them so insidious, because there are times when they do mean something and times when they don't mean anything. It must be tough for people coming to English to try to deal with language patterns that either mean nothing or may mean something at one point and not mean anything at another point."

RS: "Well, how would a person who is learning English as a foreign language know to distinguish these words from any other words?"

WALTERS: "That, I think, is hard, and it's hard in other languages, too, and I think -- this is going to be a flip answer -- but I think, be relaxed about it and try to tune your ear to the context. So, does the speaker really mean 'in some cases,' or does the speaker just not want to take a stand? I'll give you another example of what I have in mind that's really coming into the speech I hear among students and adults, and it's coming into their writing too, and that's ending a sentence with 'and all' or 'and such' or 'and the like' or 'and everything.'"

AA: "For example, do you have a sentence there you can ... "

WALTERS: "Yeah, this one I really loved -- 'she started dating boys and all.' (laughter)"

AA: "And all what?"

WALTERS: "That was the question in my mind, I was interested in what else she was dating. But if your doctor walks into the room with a chart and says 'you have a problem with high blood pressure and all.'"

RS: "And you go, 'what else?'"

WALTERS: "You really want to know whether it means something or doesn't mean something."

AA: Professor Ronald Walters says he would give English learners who need help with writing the same advice he gives his history students:

WALTERS: "First, pay attention to the structure of what it is that you want to say, to the organization of it. Worry less about getting the perfect sentence and knowing more the order of the things that you want to say and the transitions between points. I also tell them to take a piece of non-fiction that they feel is well written and take maybe two to five pages, just take them apart, paragraph by paragraph. Pay attention to the topic sentence, the first sentence of each paragraph, and maybe even just read four or five pages just reading the first sentences. What they'll commonly find out is that you can tell an awful lot about what they're reading just by doing that, because the authors are using the beginnings of paragraphs very clearly to state a main point. And that helps potential writers begin to think of paragraphs as units of analysis."

RS: Ronald Walters at Johns Hopkins University once wrote a style guide with one of his students.

AA: We found it posted on the Internet. Just do a search for "weasel words" (that's W-E-A-S-E-L) and "Ronald Walters."

RS: To find Avi and me, go to And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Pop Goes the Weasel"/Disney Silly Songs