Misleading Language: Comparisons, Weasel Words, Enthymemes, and other Rhetorical Tricks

Part 1 
A:  You may have already won a brand new car!

B:  Some doctors recommend ginko biloba for improved cognitive function.

C:  This is perhaps the best diet product ever made!

D:  Up to 2/3rds of all people who used Chemain de Fer face cream said they thought they looked younger after just one week!

E:  Our best deal yet!  This Saturday get up to 50% off!

F:  This ancient Chinese medicinal tea relieves joint soreness in up to 60% of people who tried it!

G:  As many as 50 students will receive A’s in Ami’s class!

H:  Buy Ami’s Non-GMO All-Natural Organic Dirt!  Just one application and your fat/acne will seem to melt away/disappear over night!

I:  This drink from acai berries from the ancient Amazon rainforest will virtually change your health for the better in a matter of days!

J. BGSU named one of America’s best colleges!!!!!http://www.bgsu.edu/news/2016/09/bgsu-named-one-of-americas-best-colleges.html

Weasel words are words that are used to make a dubious claim appear strong claim and avoid outright lying.  You can think of weasel words as a form of intentional vagueness to mislead an audience. Common weasel words are: “up to x percent/x number”, “some”, “as many as”, “reportedly”, “virtually”, “many”, “seems”, “perhaps”, “may” “one of”.

Part 2:
A:  Happiness Double Joy quilted paper towels are 25% more absorbent!


C: It’s Christmas in July! All Dell computers sold below suggested retail price!

D:  Phone company X lets you call anywhere cheaper. Just 5 cents per minute compared to Phone Company Y, which charges 10 cents a minute (Lewis Vaughn).

E. The ACA is bad because those earning above $45 000/year struggle to pay for health insurance yet don’t get a tax subsidy. 

G*. The economy is doing well since the over 235 000 started new jobs in the month of February.

H. Bhutan and Mozambique both have GDP growth rates over 7%/year. The US GDP has only been growing at around 2%. Clearly, Bhutan and Mozambique are beating the US economically.

I. School teachers don’t earn very much money.

J. Papa John's.jpg

K. 0510-gillette-main-a.jpg


Misleading Comparisons:  Often comparisons can mislead by:

1: Ambiguous Comparison Class: Omitting what something is being compared to or the comparison class. E.g., A, C, F, G, I, J.

2: Comparing Apples to Oranges. When the comparison is between things that differ in ways that make a comparison uninformative or misleading. E.g., in D we’d also need to know if the plans charge monthly fees and what those fees are. The most common use is in politics when promoting/criticizing policies. E.g., Comparing the benefits of X to the costs of Y or the costs of X to the benefits of Y.  You must compare costs to costs and benefits to benefits otherwise the comparison is uninformative at best, and misleading at worst. E.g., D, G, H. 

3: Puffery: A legal term in advertising law for hype that few people would take seriously. E.g., B, K.

General strategies for evaluating evaluative claims: Any time someone claims that something is good, bad, better, worse, cheaper, nicer, etc you should immediately ask “compared to what?” (This is Relativity in RRAR).

Part 3a
A:  I’m really certain that my students madly scrolling during lecture aren’t on The Facebook at this particular moment.

B:  I think it’s pretty safe to assume Mr. Jones is a responsible teacher.  He hasn’t done any drugs in quite a while.

C:  Are you talking about politician X?  I think that it’s great that she’s gone as far as she has with only a little help from her rich family.

D:  You’re doing an excellent job considering you only have a GED…




Innuendo:  When you imply something negative about a person or organization without explicitly stating it.

A:  Obviously, Critical Thinking 1030 is the most important class you’ll ever take.

B:  It goes without saying that Obamacare is a complete failure.


Person 1: I was thinking about taking Amino Cryo Pump 3000 to make gainz. Do you know if it works?

Person 2: Without a doubt, Amino Cryo Pump 3000 will help you make gainz. 




Truth Surrogates:  Words like “obviously”, “clearly”, “it goes without saying”, etc… are used in place  of actually supplying supporting reasons for the claim.


Examples: collateral damage, detainees, passed away, senior citizen, downsizing, smart bomb, “put to sleep, pre-emptive defensive strike, freedom fighters, healthcare freedom, school choice.

DEF: A euphemism substitutes mild and indirect ways of speaking for ways that might seem blunt, harsh, or impolite for social context. Often to neutralize emotional content or to obscure other important information. Why does it matter? Usually a claim is being made but it obscures important information to the issue.
There are legitimate and illegitimate uses:
    • Legitimate: When the word is not part of an argument or when the euphemism is more appropriate for social context (he passed away, her horse was put down, I had my dog’s anal glands expelled…)
    • The usage is illegitimate if the meaning of a term or phrase in an argument is obscuring important information.
  • E.g., Bleeding-heart liberal, heartless conservative, shopping-cart Christian, activist judge,
  • hysterical tone, bossy (used vs women), puritanical zealotry (vs. Religious), Godless atheist (vs non-believers), bigoted, fear-mongering campaign, perverse logic

    Def: A dysphemism substitutes emotionally neutral words for emotionally evocative words.

  • “Abortion is the murder of an unborn child.”
  • “A conservative is someone who believes all problems can be solved with
  • more guns and more Jesus.”
  • “A liberal is someone who thinks all problems can be solved by more government.”
Rhetorical Definition (vs Lexical Definition):  When you define a term in such a way as to manipulate (often with emotional language) how the audience feels about a concept.  It is a way of rigging the terms of the debate in the arguer’s favor.  Often used in conjunction with poisoning the well/genetic fallacy/ad hominem/circumstantial ad hominem.  
The lexical definition refers to the definition of a term/concept as it is most commonly used by users of the language or as it is commonly defined in a dictionary.


Stereotyping:  An unwarranted conclusion or generalization about an entire group of people.


A: Fox news is fair and balanced?  Ha! It’s about as balanced as the leaning tower of Pisa. 
B: MSNB’s slogan is “lean forward.”  More like “lean left”!
Ridicule:  The use of derision, sarcasm, laughter, or mockery to disparage a person or idea (Lewis Vaughn).

A: Women vs Men with Math

B:  Oh! You’re a philosopher?  You must be charming and witty.




Stereotyping:  An unwarranted conclusion or generalization about an entire group of people and/or to judge someone not as an individual but as a part of a group whose members are thought to be alike.

Why do rhetorical devices matter? Because there is a claim being asserted instead of providing an argument. If X is sooooo bad, good, right, wrong, etc. . ., then give an argument to show this.  Making the assertion isn’t an argument.  Sayin’ something don’t make it so.




A. 1. Identify the weasel word and 2. explain why the weasel word misleads the audience:


This month only, protein powders are up to 60% off!!!11!!!1

Weasel word: up to

“Up to” misleads because even if protein powder were only 1% off the statement would be true. But the audience probably thinks the protein powder will be 50% off (or close to it).

1. Some dentists believe that Shiny Smile 3000 is best electric toothbrush on the market.

2. The Ford F-150 is so durable, it may be the last truck you’ll ever buy.

3. Up to 80% of women endorse candidate X.

4. Explosive Report! Breaking News! Recent report suggests candidate X may have broken the law.

5. As many as 90% of Ami’s judo students learn to become deadly ninjas. Sign up now!

6. When you take Non-GMO Herbal Organic Meadow Detox Tea, all your stress will seem to disappear.

7. With new Ultra Mega Shred GAINZ 3000 you will virtually transform your body in a matter of weeks.

8. Explosive Report! Breaking News! Candidate X has reportedly been taking political contributions from China.

9. Many students will agree that Ami’s Ultra Elite Critical Thinking Course 1030 is the most valuable course at BGSU.


B.  1. Identify the kind of misleading comparison (Omitting/ambiguous comparison class, apples to oranges, or puffery).

2. Explain why it’s a misleading comparison and what other information you’d need to properly evaluate the claim. 


Student use of methamphetamines has gone up 50%.

Answer: 1. Omitting comparison class.  2. It’s misleading because we don’t know what the appropriate comparison is. Is it a unit of time or compared to some other intoxicant? I.e., in the last 10 years, the last 10 months? Since midterms?  Is it compared to another drug? E.g., alcohol, the pot?

1. Healthcare costs are rising.

2. Critical thinking is a very important class.

3. The average man’s salary is more than the average woman’s, therefore women are underpaid.

4. Barrie Bonds was a better batter than Willie Mays. (Hint: One player used steroids)

5. Chipotle makes the best burritos in the world.

6. (From an April report on the retail sector) Retail sales have fallen 20% since December. The retail sector is in trouble.

7. Today’s pole-vaulters are much better than those of 30 years ago because they vault much higher. (Hint: Think about changes in technology).

8. What’s better for you, coffee or tea?

9. New Hippy Organic Nature Spiritual Woman Flower skin cream is now 25% more effective!!!!11!!!

10. The travel ban is good because it reduces the risk of terrorists entering the US.


C. Identify the Euphemism (makes it sound better than it is) or Dysphemism (makes it sound worse than it is).

1. Teacher (but not me): Hey, how is it at Uptown? Student: Uh, you might be a bit mature for that bar.

2. We need more investment in clean coal.

3. I’ll be back in a second–I’m just going to use the men’s room.

4. Typical government, stealing our money every April.

5.  We need to support the freedom fighters in Syria.

6. We need to crush the rebel insurgents in Syria.

7. Fortunately, in the war we were able to minimize collateral damage.

8. Will you be voting for the revenue enhancements this fall?

D. Critical Thinking in The “Real” World

In some parts of American (and Western) culture and media, it’s believed that Muslims are likely to be terrorists. This belief is often cited as justification for more intense security screening and proposed immigration bans. Notice that “likely” implies a comparison to other groups. I.e., X is more likely if they have some property MORE THAN some other group(s). So, the belief is that Muslims are more likely than other groups to be terrorists. This is still vague. Here’s part of the problem: What’s the correct comparison class?

Here are some things to think about:

1. Prior to the attack in Orlando and since 9-11, more Americans had been killed by Right wing extremists (i.e., White) terrorists than by Muslims (Links to an external site.). After Orlando, since the number of victims was so high, that statistic changed.

2. What’s the correct period of measurement? The past matters, but how much? If more Americans have died since 9-11 from Right wing extremists do we weight that more heavily than terrorist acts from 15 years ago? 25 years ago? 50 years ago? If we go back far enough, the British will say the American colonists were the worst terrorists. In other words, how do we select our time range to pick out our groups. Interestingly in much of the 20th century, most terrorist attacks were perpetrated by the far Left.

3. On one hand, since we live in America we’re concerned about the likelihood of someone being a terrorist in our immediate environment and so comparing groups within America might be the correct comparison class. On the other hand, if our claim is that a group (in the most general sense) is more likely than other groups to engage in terrorism then we need to look at all terrorist acts around the world. When we do this, the data shows that Muslims are in fact not very likely to commit acts of terrorism especially when you take into account their relative population in the world. For example of the around 800 acts of terrorism in Europe from 2011-2014 less than 1% where perpetrated by Muslims. Most were by Left and Right wing nationalist and extremist groups. If we measure likelihood of committing an act of terrorism relative to a group’s population (and include the last 30 years) then the Irish and the Basque are probably at or near the top of the list.

4. So, back to the original question–and we can make it even more general–if someone wants to say that a member of a particular group is likely to engage in terrorist acts, what is the best way to evaluate that statement since it’s inherently comparative? “Likely” implies more than baseline. But what’s the baseline? i.e., what are the other groups we’re comparing to? What is the period of history? What do we count: number of terrorists involved or number of civilians killed?

Prepare to discuss your answer in recitation.