Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Weasel Words -- The Modal Verbs

When I was doing research on the language of advertising I encountered Carl Wrighter's book I Can Sell You Anything, as infuriatingly arrogant and insulting a book title as I can imagine. My copy has long since vanished but thanks to Amazon.com, I have been able to order a used copy which will likely prompt additional blogs on advertising language. Interestingly, if memory serves, the same book was also published under the name of Paul Stevens. Carl/Paul was an advertising copy writer and doubtless published the book under a pseudonym while employed as such and didn't want to be outed as giving away trade secrets.1

Carl/Paul's claim is that advertisers use bits of language that fool us, making us think that some product or service will do for us things it cannot do. One important class of said "weasel words"1 are modal verbs like "can," "could," "may," and "might," among others. These are often combined with the verb "help," especially in claims made on behalf of products designed to make us feel or look better. Consider, for instance, this web ad for Olay Total Effects.
The benefits of Total Effects are truly exceptional. For years, women have been looking for a simple-to-use product that could combat multiple symptoms of aging skin. Now, thanks to Total Effects, there's a moisturizer that can fight the seven signs of aging. To learn more about this new skincare sensation from Olay, click on a topic that interests you, or simply scroll down the page.
Statements like these containing "could" and "can" if construed in some narrow literal way, are so weak that they could hardly be false. From that perspective, so long as there is the minutest possibility that they are true, then they are true.

The manufacturere provides supporting evidence in the form of "a consumer research study" and two quotatcions from "several" (i. e., two) university dermatologists. In the former, it was claimed that
Olay TE rated higher overall versus these products, and it fight [sic] the seven signs of aging.
In the case of the testimonials, we find that one of the doctors probably did the "consumer study," and was surely paid to do it.

What is a "consumer study"? One thing it probably isn't is an actual experiment. An Alzheimer's patient I know is being given a drug designed to increase memory abilities and its effects on her memory are tested in a systematic way on each visit to the doctor. Maybe dermatolgists have some instrument like a tire depth guage to measure the depth of women's wrinkles.

On the other hand, a double-blind experimental study of the relative effectiveness of the products mentioned in the pop up window and Olay Total Effects was surely not done. The reason I think this is that they mention seven competitors and that would mean an experiment involving eight products. I have no idea how many subjects would be required to achieve statistical significance in a study this large but I'm betting it would require many more people than the dermatologist "studied." The two specific claims made of interest here are 1. Women have been looking for a simple-to-use product that could combat multiple symptoms of aging skin. 2. There's a moisturizer that can fight the seven signs of aging.

It is interesting that Olay is evoking a war metaphor when using words like "fight" (three instances) and "combat." One imagines a fierce battle going on as a woman sits at her makeup table. I have digressed away from the primary topic, the modal verbs as weasel words. the fact is that a claim like "Total Effects can fight/can combat the multiple symptoms of aging skin" doesn't actually make a claim for actual success in making skin look younger. Germany and Japan fought/combated other countries in a quest for areal domination. They both lost. Lets consider then a more straightforward claim like (3).
(3) Total Effects can make your skin look smoother.

Now, just how strong is this claim? Well, from a literalist perspective, it would be true if it makes just one woman's skin look a tiny bit smoother. That is, (3) is verified from a literalist perspective by observation (4).

(4) My Aunt Bea used Total Effects for a week and
her skin looks a little bit smoother.
Yes, just one instance ofsomeone's skin being even slightly smoothed out confirms (3). Since advertisers constantly make claims like thosein our Olay ad involving "can" and "could," as well as "may" and "might"and other modal verbs like them we may assume that they believe that such claims are at least sometimes effective. Either that or advertisers are forced to use these words in order to make any claims at all. (I suspect that is sometimes true.) If we are gulled, there are two possibilities. I noted in "The Language of Television Advertising," that Miller and Johnson-Laird2 claimed that we may simply not notice these words. I showed a draft of a chapter of my book in which the Miller and Johnson-Laird hypothesis was being discussed to a philosopher/logician buddy of mine and he claimed,"Your claim about X is way too strong." I replied, "How could it be? It has "may" in it." He had clearly missed it. Now that doesn't confirm the hypothesis but it nicely illustrates it. There is another hypothesis and this is that when we use these so-called "weasel words" we usually mean to be making reasonably strong claims. If you have a nasty headache and I hand you a couple of pills of a brand new type I just got and say, "Take these, they may help" I mean to be making a substantive claim. I am not promising that these pills will make your headache disappear but that there is a good chance that your headache will be lessened if not cured. Returning to Wrighter's claim that he can sell us anything, it is important to note that advertisers aren't actually smarter than we are. They simply exploit our normal patterns of language use in which these words are not used to make reasonably substantive claims.

In fact, if we didn't frequently use them to say things that are significant, we wouldn't have much of any use for them. To further prove that they aren't smarter than we are, its worth noting that we sometimes use these words as they do, as when we want to decline an invitation without insulting the person inviting us. So, if Mary asks John if he can come to a party she's giving and John says, "I may come but I'm not sure I will be free," Mary should probably not count on John showing up. But, when we use one of these modal verbs in this way, we aren't trying to fool our friends, for they perfectly well know what we are up to. We are simply trying to be polite.

1There is another use of "weasel words" which is employed by the guardians of good prose. One writer says we should avoid
weasel words -- empty palliatives such as "to a certain degree," "it may seem likely that," or "in some cases.
This use of the phrase "weasel word" deserves a separate blog as part of our fight against linguistic evil.

2Miller, G. A. & Johnson-Laird, P. N. 1976. Language and Perception. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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Blogger hh said...

One thing that makes this use of 'can' and 'could' especially weaselly is their modal ambiguity: they can mean 'ability to' as well as 'possibility'. So 'I can ride a bike' could be a statement about one's inherent ability, as well as a statement about the possibility (on a certain occasion) of the speaker's riding a bike (as opposed to, e.g., walking, or taking a car, etc.)

In the Olay ad, the adwriters are hoping that the potential customers are reading 'can' and 'could' with their abilitative meaning, but if it ever came down to a lawsuit, they could claim (in a 'narrow, literal way') that they were using them in their possibility meaning. Very, very weaselly.

11:11 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Nice point, hh. In fact, many modals exhibt this ambiguity between the deontic (your "ability" reading) and the epistemic (your "possibility" reading). Epistemic modals are so called because they modulate the truth-value of the sentence. That is the reading the advertisers like.

4:33 PM

Blogger hh said...

Today my crop of comics included the following, which I can't resist linking to in this context:

Get Fuzzy plays with modals

:) hh

2:45 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


As an advertising writer I don't think I've ever been in a position to use a weasel word. Unless you count legal at the end of 56 seconds of radio. Then yes, I've been a bad, bad girl.

10:40 AM


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