Avoiding Peacock and Weasel Terms

The peacock is an impressive-looking bird and the weasel is a shrewd little predator. They certainly have their place in the animal kingdom, but do they have their place in the writing world?

Peacocking and weaseling may sound like strange terms when we’re talking about writing, but they should be understood if you’re on a quest to become a better writer. Often times, you’ll hear clients refer to “fluff”, stating they don’t want meaningless words just to meet the word count — that’s what peacock and weasel terms are in a nutshell.

Likewise, Wikipedia encourages people to avoid using peacock and weasel terms in creating Wikipedia articles, but their advice is relevant in copywriting and non-fiction blog and article pieces too. Peacock and weasel terms are difficult to avoid, but once you learn what they are, and why they should be avoided, you’ll be able to spot them in your own writing.

Peacock Terms

Peacock terms and weasel terms are strikingly similar, yet arguably dissimilar. Peacock terms promote a subject without providing attribution. Think of it this way: the male plumage of a peacock is colorful, brightly hued and extravagant — and so are peacock terms. Peacock terms are used to grab a reader’s attention, but typically reflect an unqualified opinion. A good way to understand peacock words and phrases is to look at some peacock terms and an example.

  • one of the most important
  • one of the best
  • a well-known
  • the indisputable
  • an iconic
  • the legendary
  • immensely
  • one of the greatest
  • outstanding
  • a world-class
  • most respected
  • among the most notable

Can you name some others?

Take this peacock phrase example for instance: Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most influential people of 2010. While that may be true, where is the attribution? Who says that? A much better comment would be Mark Zuckerberg was named 2010 Person of the Year by Time Magazine. See the difference? Of course, Time goes on to say that Zuckerberg “connected more than a half a billion people”, which actually borders on a weasel phrase, which is next up. How many over half a billion? It could be just “one person” over a half a billion and the statement would still be true.

Weasel Terms

Like peacock terms, weasel words and phrases aim to create an impression that the writer wrote something meaningful and specific, when in fact only vague, general, and ambiguous information was claimed. Some writers use weasel terms to “soften the blow” when discussing controversial topics. They may say “somewhat” or “people say” to lessen the impact.

Weasel terms tend to promote the thought that something is widely accepted, whether it is or isn’t. According to Ghost Creative NYC, weasel words are “a sneaky method of substituting hearsay, vague claims, or opinion, for facts or statistical proof”. Weasels are clever and guile mammals — so are weasel words. In fact, weasels are so sneaky, that they’re often mistaken for a rodent, rather than a mustelid.

Weasel words can be derived from a numerical background, such as stating “many”, “few” and “some” or they may come from the use of passive phrases such as “it is said”. Other times, adverbs, such as “probably” and “often” de-intensify the claim. Weasel phrases are used when someone wants to present a non-neutral point of view.

Example of weasel words and phrases are:

  • Studies show – What studies?
  • Some argue – Who argues?
  • Clearly – Is the claim undeniably true? Usually it’s not.
  • Critics say – Ok, what critics?
  • More than 60% – 61% or 69%?
  • Is considered by many – Great, but who?

That said, there is at least one caveat here: Remember, the client comes first. If the client is looking for more generalized, vague copy and specifically requests this in the writing piece, then you may find yourself adding a few weasel and peacock words and phrases, even if you cringe in doing so.

Now that you have a handle on peacock and weasel words and phrases, can you count the number of peacock and weasel terms in this blog post, whether intentional or not? There’s no prize for a correct answer — other than bragging rights, of course.

Elizabeth M is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments. WriterAccess is powered by ideaLaunch.


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