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Too Weaselly for Academia

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Tim McIndoo
By Tim McIndoo, Dissertation Editor

In everyday conversation, it’s common to be polite. We may not say what we really think. So we pussyfoot: Well, if we don't leave ‘til noon, we probably won't arrive on time. We don't want to seem too positive because we don't want to alienate whomever we are talking to and, well, we could be wrong. So we equivocate: No, I suppose it won't be a problem if you leave later. Politeness is a useful strategy for sustaining conversations and relationships—but not for generating knowledge, which is the business of research. To generate knowledge, you must be straightforward. Thus, it’s important not to dodge, fudge, hedge, waffle, and tergiversate.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a weasel word is “an equivocating or ambiguous word which takes away the force or meaning of the concept being expressed.” But in research, why pull punches? According to The Free Dictionary, it’s “a word used to avoid making an outright assertion.” But how can research be executed without assertions about what is known and not known?

Use of a weasel word may suggest that writers are uncertain about an assertion or claim or that they fear making an “outright assertion.” It’s a shorthand, preemptive sort of defense: “Well, I think that’s the case.” In other words, “Don't make me make a commitment.” A weasel word wants to leave you an out, but instead it just leaves you without substance. (It’s like trying to dance with a wet rag.)

Here are some examples:
  • Dodge: There’s been a lot of talk about whether I paid my taxes in full. But that’s a pretty “small-minded” issue and it’s not nearly as important as….
  • Fudge: [Ending a tense phone conversation] Well, I gotta go.
  • Hedge: Yes, that’s true. It’s essentially true. But you have to keep in mind that….
  • Waffle: A: But yesterday you said it was true. B: Well, maybe it is, but….
  • Tergiversate: I’m sure you misunderstood me. When I said the mayor was a crook, I was only referring to….
Here’s a common example of a weasel word in action; it often shows up in drafts:
  • The data seemed to suggest that… In research, readers expect analysis and conclusions. The word seemed implies uncertainty, either in the data themselves or, more subtly, in the analytical ability of the writer. Either way, knowledge is not advanced. 
If you’ve collected enough good data, if you are confident in what you know and don't know, then there’s no need to equivocate. If you are not confident, if your data lack quality or depth, the next step is to collect more good data.

Try to remember that, in the pursuit of knowledge, being wrong is not strictly wrong. Contrary to what we may have learned, it has value. Most knowledge arrives incrementally and each time you're wrong, you're closer to the truth. (Confirming a null hypothesis constitutes a new fact.)

Finally, don't forget that knowledge is neither polite nor impolite. Knowledge is not about keeping friends. It’s about truth.

Weasel word. (2012). In Oxford English dictionary. Retrieved from

Weasel word. (n.d.). In The free dictionary. Retrieved from

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