Thursday, November 29, 2012

Smart people are not fooled by weasel words

You and I may not like to think about it, but we know it’s true: Intelligent readers and listeners are not fooled by weasel words. If we want to get through to intelligent people, we must use clear diction and sound logic.


Three weeks before Election Day in 2012, journalist Jonathan Chait wrote about politicians’ use of weasel words, which he generously called “mushy platitudes” and “vapid, buoyant patter”:
But when you press the candidates to explain just how it is they could escape the muck that has ensnared Obama the past two years, they descend into mushy platitudes. Romney promises “leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat” – at most a mild Republican retreat from Obama’s aggressive reforms, or perhaps even a reprise of Romney’s often liberal tenure in Massachusetts. Obama, for his part, has offered up an even less plausible scenario, which is that, even though Republicans in Congress responded to his 2008 victory by becoming even more radical than they were under George W. Bush, winning a second election will beat the crazy out of them and usher in a new era of legislative compromise and good feelings.

It seems natural to conclude from all this vapid, buoyant patter that neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that, whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four. (Boldface added.)
Presidential candidates’ large staffs of ghostwriters, strategists, psychologists and propagandists create the most persuasive weasel words that money can buy. The candidates aim those weasel words at the most feeble-minded of government employees, government pensioners, government contractors, and miscellaneous government beneficiaries. This is the crowd that usually determines the outcome of an election. But even the slickest politicians with the slickest weasel words cannot convince intelligent readers and listeners like Mr. Chait that they are actually saying anything.

The Takeaway: Compared to a presidential candidate, you and I (a) have less persuasive power and (b) face more-intelligent audiences. We need to aim high, with clear diction and sound logic. Weasel words won’t work.

By the way, I thought the mixed metaphor “the muck that has ensnared,” being picturesque, was especially distracting; it was made even more distracting by the related mixed metaphor “descend into mushy platitudes” a few words later. As we have often discussed on this blog, it is difficult for a writer to spot his own mixed metaphors. Even a pro like Jonathan Chait can miss one or two. The lesson for us ordinary folks: try to have everything edited.

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