Wriggle words: how to write clearly and not get sued
Posted on 18 November 2014 by Lucy Gregory
Are you afraid of being understood?
There are lots of reasons why people avoid clear writing. But one of the most common is a crippling fear of commitment. We’re terrified that if we write what we mean in crystal clear, unequivocal language, there’s no going back. There’s proof. On paper. And no plausible deniability if something goes wrong.
The natural response is to make your writing unintelligible. If the reader doesn’t understand you or loses the will to live before reaching the end of your sentence/paragraph/document, there’s a chance they won’t spot any mistakes lurking in your text. Sound familiar?
If this is your strategy, please stop. It’s absolutely not true that you expose yourself to risk by writing clearly. In fact, you’re much more likely to cause problems by ambiguity.
But you do need to make sure you don’t overcommit or lose subtlety in your writing. Wriggle words are the way to do it.
Some wriggle words
Should / we expect
If you’re talking about something in the future, avoid the word ‘will’. As one of my clients said to his team, ‘Our company and staff are not fortune tellers, so please don’t write that something “will” happen.’
Since you can never be 100% sure of a future event, prefer the words ‘should’ and ‘we expect’.
Avoid: The project will complete next week.
Prefer: Based on current progress, the project should complete next week.
Another good word. No one can question your intentions, and this word allows you to be positive without overcommitting.
Avoid: The company will publish its accounts tomorrow.
Prefer: The company intends to publish its accounts tomorrow.
Usually / generally / most
These are great words for being succinct while allowing for exceptions. In the example below, I’ve reduced four words to one with no significant change to the meaning.
Avoid: Except in rare circumstances, operations are performed in-house.
Prefer: Generally, operations are performed in-house.
‘Suggests’ adds an element of interpretation to your analysis.
Avoid: This means we’ll run out of capacity by the end of next year.
Prefer: This suggests we’ll run out of capacity by the end of next year.
Advice from the professionals
There’s one group of business writers for whom this kind of language is bread and butter: lawyers.
So I mentioned this blog to a few former colleagues, who were eager to contribute to the list. Or, as one of them put it, ‘Wriggle words? As in wriggling out of taking responsibility for something like advice in an email? It’s a full time occupation!’
And here are a few of their suggestions:
As far as we are aware/as far as it is possible to tell
I understand that…
If one were being bullish/bearish/taking a view
If you were to do x, you should be prepared for y
One approach would be
We are comfortable/uncomfortable with x
A word of warning
Please don’t go over board with wriggle words. They’re designed to help you be more concise, not less so. And you’ll become unpopular with readers if you’re too vague.
I leave you with an example of how not to use wriggle words, taken from a government letter:
‘In transmitting this matter to the Council the Minister feels that it may be of assistance to them to learn that, as at present advised, he is inclined to think that, in existing circumstances, there is, prima facie, a case for…’*
* Extract taken from Gowers, E., The Complete Plain Words