Mind your language: GCS warns against use of "weasel words" (but must edit some from its own publications)

Keeping communication clear and simple is one of the many mantras of the Government Communications Service, in its continuing mission to persuade the rest of the Civil Service of the importance of comms.

Stamping out the use of weasel words is tricky, even for those behind the GCS style guide (pic credit: RapidEye/Getty Images)
Stamping out the use of weasel words is tricky, even for those behind the GCS style guide (pic credit: RapidEye/Getty Images)
One might be forgiven for assuming that the modern comms professional would have no time for flowery language or, worse, misleading prose. 

These are words that have the misfortune to have been deemed "vague or ambiguous words and expressions that have been drained of meaning through overuse".

Just to make sure the message has hit home, the style guide adds that the offending words "add nothing to the reader’s understanding and may even mislead".

It adds: "The expression ‘weasel words’ is based on a traditional belief that weasels suck the yolk from birds’ eggs, leaving only the empty shell."

One example given is 'facilitate'. It is better to say something specific about how you are helping, according to the GCS. 

Other words that are decidedly out of favour include: 'key' (unless it unlocks something), 'progress' (when used as a verb), 'promote/promoting' (unless you are talking about a marketing campaign or similar), 'stakeholder' and 'transforming'. 

Phrases that are singled out as being things to avoid include 'slimming down' and 'in order to' as well as 'going forward'.

However, the temptation of using such words and phrases appears to have been too great for even the most senior government comms professionals to resist because the flagship publications of the GCS just happen to be littered with them.

A casual inspection of the organisation’s 2017-18 comms plan reveals at least 20 uses of various 'weasel words'.   

The GCS handbook – essential reading for government comms practitioners – is similarly afflicted, with the offending vocabulary appearing no less than 17 times.

Many weasel words crop up in both publications, such as 'facilitate', while others include ‘key, ‘progress’, ‘promote/promoting’ and ‘stakeholders.’ 

The GCS comms plan also commits the cardinal sin of mentioning the word ‘transforming’ rather than saying what is actually being done to change something. 

On the plus side, it avoids using the phrase 'in order to'. However, this is not a boast that the GCS handbook can make - it uses the phrase, condemned as being "superfluous" in the organisation’s style guide, in several places.

It could be worse; the two GCS publications at least manage to avoid using such words as ‘dialogue’, ‘foster’ (unless relating to children), ‘going forward’, ‘initiate’, ‘land’ (as a verb, unless it relates to flying or fishing), ‘leverage’ (unless in a financial context), ‘streamline’ and ‘utilise’.

Not only that, but the list of words and phrases proscribed by the GCS could have been even longer than the one page it currently takes up in the organisation’s style guide. 

The style guide states: "This is a far from exhaustive list. We all have pet hates that we would include."

This means the full extent to which 'weasel words' are part of the GCS corporate voice could be even worse than it appears, depending on one’s point of view.

If PRWeek was to mark the GCS’s homework, it might include the words ‘must try harder’ when it comes to the use of jargon and 'weasel words' or, as the GCS style guide advises: "The point is to think clearly about what information you want to get across and not to fall back on clichés and jargon."

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