Wikipedia talk:Be cautious with compliments and mass attribution

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Two points about this page's changes in wording from the originals:

  1. I prefer the stronger advice of "avoid" rather than the more easily ignored "be cautious." There may be occasional exceptions, but these principles deserve to be stated strongly, because a wording of this sort found on Wikipedia is almost always a problem needing to be fixed, not an exception.
  2. I don't understand what is meant by "mass attribution." Surely the problem with "critics say..." or "some believe..." is not that the phrases refer to groups of people, but that they do not specify which groups. Phrases can be just as "weasel word"-ish in the singular: "an opponent might say..."

The page needs a copyedit, too. -- Rbellin|Talk 21:58, 8 May 2005 (UTC)

I'm of the opinion that "avoid" is far too strong. We shouldn't tell people to "avoid" doing something that's often necessary. And the exceptions aren't just "occasional" either. (And the real problem isn't in these phrases, it's in the attitude of the people using the phrases, which is what I was trying to get at.)
Do you prefer "vague attribution" to "mass attribution"? To me the terms are roughly synonymous -- attributing something to some large group is almost always being vague. -- Doom 23:05, May 8, 2005 (UTC)
I do strongly prefer "vague attribution," as it is a specific description of the type of language to be avoided, rather than "mass attribution," a description of another type of language which happens sometimes (perhaps often) to overlap with it. Many attributions of opinions or ideas to large groups are perfectly definite, specific, and accurate: religious doctrines, political party platforms, et cetera.
On the first point, I simply disagree: it is my considered opinion that vague attributions/weasel words are completely unacceptable in the vast majority of cases on Wikipedia. This includes the vast majority of cases which are mentioned as "acceptable" by this page and others. (e.g.: I find it vague and controvertible to write "War and Peace is widely regarded as Tolstoy's "greatest" novel" without substantiating this with reference to one or more specific critical sources. Maybe the time will soon be right to begin a discussion of more stringent standards for "original research" in art/literature/film/media criticism on Wikipedia, but this is not the place for that, so I'll simply say again that, in general, I believe this kind of wording needs to be avoided in almost all cases, and is never truly necessary.) Therefore I do not see this page in its current state as an acceptable replacement for Wikipedia:Avoid weasel terms, though I do desire to diminish the spirit of (unintended or intended) name-calling which attends the pejorative phrase "weasel words." I invite other opinions, though I may not be able to reply further. -- Rbellin|Talk 05:07, 9 May 2005 (UTC>
Thanks for making your slant on this point clear, but it's pretty clear we disagree very strongly. It's great if someone wants to take the trouble to support a point like "War and Peace is widely regarded as Tolstoy's greatest novel", but I suggest that there's no need to require that much work. It's not a high priority, because it's just not a controversial point. And in any case, even if you do want to take the trouble to support the point, there's no reason to come up with a more convoluted way of saying it in the first place. There just ain't nothing wrong with peacocks and weasels in themselves.
Could it be that your real problem with this stuff is that you're striving for "objectivity" rather than "neutrality"? I've seen other people make this mistake... there really is a difference though.
Your hint about "original research" is intriguing -- my take would be that the wikipedia is not at all a place to present original research. It's for summaries of consensus opinion -- if you have something really new to say you should be using another forum. -- Doom 04:50, May 14, 2005 (UTC)
I don't want to take up too much space with this here, but you seem to have misunderstood me as saying the exact opposite of what I meant to say about original research, so I'd like to momentarily clarify. I am strongly in support of the core principle Wikipedia:No original research, and I view it as more broadly applicable than other Wikipedians seem to think. The example of literary-critical judgments, in articles on literary works and authors -- like "War and Peace is widely thought to be his greatest novel" (which is often used as an "acceptable" case of use of weasel words) -- is, in my view, just a cop-out for Wikipedians who want to write original literary criticism under the guise of an encyclopedia article. It rarely passes as NPOV to someone who's read more widely in the criticism of the article's subject; in fact, this kind of thing is, to me, a textbook case of personal opinion masked as consensus by vague wording. I think Wikipedia will eventually need higher standards for what qualifies as "original research" in order to become academically respectable in its coverage of culture and aesthetics. (Sorry for the off-topic discussion, but I thought a clarification might help.) -- Rbellin|Talk 20:06, 14 May 2005 (UTC)


I have undertaken a copyedit and a bit of rewriting. Most of my rewordings, apart from grammar fixes, are simply attempts to make the guideline more general -- and a little more prescriptive, as I'd like it to be. Please feel free to change or revert. -- Rbellin|Talk 05:26, 9 May 2005 (UTC)
Thanks for the edit -- I'm not sure I like all your changes -- some of the wording seems a bit tangled (perhaps, "weasely")... I suspect you're just not in sympathy with the point. But I'm going to let it stand for a while and let it sink in. It could be I'm excessively attached to the wording I've been staring at for over half-a-year. -- Doom 04:57, May 14, 2005 (UTC)
I'm not sure to what point you find me unsympathetic here -- but it is true that, even after my edit, I find this guideline unsuitable as a replacement for either Wikipedia:Avoid peacock terms or Wikipedia:Avoid weasel terms. I'm sorry to say this, but those are useful guidelines for good writing and are also written well themselves -- their lovely, terse, accurate, Strunkian language is not duplicated here, nor are the full weights of their emphatic and necessary points carried over. Best of luck with this guideline, though. -- Rbellin|Talk 20:06, 14 May 2005 (UTC)

I have one major problem with this kind of advice: when you say that "many consider War and Peace to be Tolstoy's greatest work", and then say that that is unhelpful, not encylopaedic and possibly "opinion-as-fact" this is not true. Many DO consider War and Peace as Tolstoy's greatest work. Any of these type of concerns (ie is the actual claim true) must be sorted out via a debate on the talk page, not a dictat from style gurus.

OK, but there is a second problem. That is, as you say, that we do not know who "many" or "some poeple" or even "critics" etc are. And I admit this is sometimes a problem. But sometimes for the sake of brevity "many" has to be used. Often, it is obvious. When we say "many think that War and Peace is Tolstoy's greatest work", it is surely implicit that this means a consensus of professional literary critics and literature professors, casual readers, historians and (maybe) the general public. To have to say every time "the following think War and Peace is Tolstoy's greatest work: Prof. X, Dr. Y, the Outer Mongolia Book Club, 60% of the people in a survey in Time magazine in January 1908. The following think it is one of his greatest works: .... The following think it is awful: Dr. Z" is not only a waste of time and effort, but is not very helpful to the vast majority of Wikipeia readers. --Batmanand 19:58, 23 May 2005 (UTC)

Manual of style[edit]

This should be integrated into the Wikipedia:Manual of Style, should it not? Joo-joo eyeball 15:11, 21 Jun 2005 (UTC)

Shakespeare example[edit]

"To begin with this article skips the problem of defining what group of people hold this opinion ("many"?) and the statement may seem vague at first ("great" in what way?), but the article quickly goes on to explain what Shakespeare is known for, and it even goes as far as to provide evidence of his popularity. The opening statement is well-supported by the article's later discussion, and the entire introduction is brief. The bulk of the article consists of indisputably factual material which supports the introduction's apparently vague and complimentary wording."

If you make a statement that is not taken from another information source, but support it based on later discussion in the article, doesn't that violate the original research ban since you're drawing a conclusion yourself? Ken Arromdee 15:07, 2 August 2005 (UTC)

I think you're reaching a bit here... is this a serious question?
It would be very difficult to claim that the idea that Shakespere was a great writer is an original idea. -- Doom 06:20, August 4, 2005 (UTC)

According to the example, the Shakespeare article is okay because the initial statement is supported by evidence presented later in the article. Providing statements and presenting evidence for them seems to be original research.

Of course it's well-established that Shakespeare is a great writer--but if so, shouldn't the statement that Shakespeare is a great writer stand on its own and not require a supporting argument? Ken Arromdee 15:32, 4 August 2005 (UTC)

(1) The idea is that we present a summary of conventional wisdom in a given field, and also try and provide references to the places where this conventional wisdom is stated. Finding those references might take some research, but it is not "original research".
(2) I personally, don't object to the notion that Shakespere's greatness is so obvious that it doesn't need support -- though the way I tend to put it is that supporting such a point is a low priority: it's a good thing to do, but the absence of such support wouldn't be grounds for deletion.
The main point that I was trying to make with the example of the Shakespere article is that it would not be improved if the writer had enganged in circumolocutions to avoid using a Forbidden Phrase. There are ways you can use peacocks and weasels that are perfectly legitimate, and the Shakespere article is a near perfect job of doing so.
-- Doom 05:59, August 6, 2005 (UTC)

Vague Attribution[edit]

Like Rbellin, I strongly prefer the "vague attribution" label to the "mass attribution" label, and I have edited the proposed guideline accordingly everywhere except in the page name. I believe that many large groups hold consensus opinions (e.g., Catholics believe in God and the sacrament of marriage and a celibate priesthood) and those groups can often be identified clearly. The problem is when the group is not easily identifiable, not when it is large rather than small. Even a small group of critics can be identified with precision, and then mentioning it in the context of a discussion of different critiques of an issue is appropriate for an encyclopedic article.

Unlike Rbellin, I do not prefer the "avoid" language, because as a guideline, it focuses Wikipedians on what not to do, rather than on the affirmative and desirable writing style. This is essentially a guideline about how and why to put the NPOV and "cite your sources" policies into practice, and both of those policies take an affirmative phrasing rather than a critical phrasing.

Problems with this page[edit]

So, I see several problems with this page:

  • As noted, it duplicates two existing (and well-established) guideline pages. It's much better to work on those pages than to start new ones.
  • It combines two very different ideas into one article.
  • The title is unnecessarily long.
  • It tries to use soft, latinate jargon to keep from making a strong point.

I think it's unreasonable to plan to add this to the manual of style. --ESP 19:39, 8 August 2005 (UTC)