How many of you have tried to sound more authoritative during a disagreement by hauling out the old, ‘They say…’ claim?
You know, as in, ‘They say Millennials don’t have the work ethic of Baby Boomers,’ or, ‘They say no one has time to write thank-you notes anymore.’
But who are ‘they’? When asked, we probably wouldn’t be able to answer.
As Adam Johnson at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted in a commentary earlier this year, claims of ‘they say’, ‘most agree’ and ‘some say’ are weasel phrases, a “rhetorical tic” that attempts to imply a consensus that may or may not exist… or to unfairly sow doubt about a contrary point of view.
In his analysis of economic reporting, Johnson wrote, “The problem with the refrain, aside from the fact that it’s a weasel phrase that wouldn’t pass muster in a 10th grade rhetoric class, is that it’s designed to posture, to aggrandise an argument based solely on the insertion of an entirely made-up consensus of bespectacled, important men hovering over data and dispassionately reaching conclusions that happen to dovetail with the author’s own positions.”
Despite these failings, this kind of phrasing is common in advertisements, news articles, reports and other places, as Johnson amply documents. Make a point of watching for it the next time you go online or watch TV: you’ll probably notice it’s used far more often than you might have realised before.
The problem with using ‘many agree’-type expressions in writing is that it asserts something that should be provable… but in fact does nothing to prove it. Worse still, it weakens – rather than strengthens – the case you’re trying to make if the facts really do support your claim.
Consider, for example, which of the following two sentences is stronger:
‘Most scientists agree that global warming is real.’
‘Studies have found that 97 per cent or more of active climate scientists agree that global warming is real.’
On the flip side, writing ‘many agree’ when there are no numbers to back that up misleads your readers. It’s better in that case to write something like, ‘While I can’t find industry-wide statistics to support this, I can personally think of a half-dozen executives who have told me…’
After all, good writing should be transparent and honest, acknowledging both the strengths and limitations of its arguments. When that’s your goal, there should be no room for weasel words and phrases.