Thursday, April 7, 2011

Inverse weasel words (2)

A weasel word appears to say something but says nothing. An inverse weasel word (my coinage) appears to say nothing but says something. As you saw in a previous post on this subject, politicians use inverse weasel words to sneak things past the attention of voters. Here’s another example:

An inverse weasel word about bullying

New Hampshire statute RSA 193-F (“Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention”) begins with this definition:

“ ‘Bullying’ means a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving a written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil...”

The inverse weasel word here is “another.” This adjective insinuates that only a pupil (not a teacher, principal, or other employee of a school) can be guilty of bullying.*

Later, the language of the definition goes beyond insinuation by directly stating:

“ ‘Perpetrator’ means a pupil who engages in bullying...”

An intelligent reader may (justly or unjustly) suspect that the primary purpose of RSA 193-F was not to protect pupils from bullying, but to protect teachers, principals, and other school employees from charges of bullying.

Thanks to Brett Veinotte for pointing out the “another pupil” reference in the statute.

The Takeaway: Never use weasel words or inverse weasel words; when intelligent readers spot weasel words or inverse weasel words, they usually suspect that the author is devious.

*I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal opinion.

See general disclaimer.

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