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I'm temporarily leaving this material here for now, though it's been exported to the style guide. The "live" location is now:

Wikipedia:Be cautious with compliments and mass attribution

This page is a proposed replacement to two disputed nodes in the Style Guide:

See the "discussion" page.

Be cautious with compliments and mass attribution[edit]

Quite often the only good way to perform a quick introduction to a subject is something like this:

"War and Peace" is widely regarded as Tolstoy's greatest novel.

However, this use of a compliment attributed to consensus opinion has it's dangers (and has been derided by some wikipedians as the use of "peacock terms" and "weasel words"). This idiom should be used only with restraint.

One problem that authors need to watch out for is that when writing this evaluation, too much of your own opinion of the subject may leak through. For example, when writing an article about a musical group, it's likely that you yourself are very enthusiastic about it, but your immediate purpose should be to describe the material to someone who is unfamiliar with it, not to declare your enthusiasm.

Even when discussing a human evaluation like "popularity", you should strive for accuracy: was the music widely popular in a particular country; was it popular among fans of a certain kind of music; was it critically well-regarded? Can you support your statements with any factual references (sales figures, quotations from critics, etc)?

If you find yourself using large amounts of vague attributions or gushing superlatives without any follow-up support, you probably need to think some more about what an encyclopedia article is for.

Consider the wikipedia entry for William_Shakespeare. The lead paragraph contains many complimentary phrases, for example:

"... considered by many to have been the greatest writer the English language has ever known"

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, and the entire introduction is brief: the bulk of the article consists of indisputably factual material.

Peacocks and Weasels[edit]

Here are some common examples of phrases that may be warnings of a disguised lack of Neutrality:

Superlative Compliments (aka "Peacock Terms")[edit]

  • "an important..."
  • "one of the most important..."
  • "one of the best..."
  • "the most influential..."
  • "a significant..."

Vague Mass Attribution (aka "Weasel Words")[edit]

  • "Some people say..."
  • " widely regarded as..."
  • " widely considered..."
  • "...has been called..."
  • "It is believed that..."
  • "It has been suggested/noticed/decided..."
  • "Some people believe..."
  • "It has been said that..."
  • "Some would say..."
  • "Legend has it that..."
  • "Critics say that..."

Frequent usage of these phrases conveys the impression that an author is attempting to pass off an opinion-piece as an encylopedia article.

However, we can not go as far as to say that they should be completely avoided. There are many cases where they can be useful, such as at the beginning of an article, where there's a need to present some general evaluation of the subject; an expression of the subject's place in the constellation of human knowledge. Before launching into a mass of factual data such as biography or bibliography, an article should explain why the reader might care about this information.

See also[edit]