The New York Times' After Deadline blog has a noteworthy semantical discussion today in light of the presidential debates and all the fact-checking and talking about fact-checking that's guaranteed to keep happening until the election on November 6, and maybe afterward, too. It's about when and when not to use the word fact and its many related expressions (the fact is; just the facts; as a matter of fact; true facts; spurious facts). Some fact phrases are cliches or crutches, taking up unnecessary space and time—"the fact of the matter is," for example, well, you could just as easily cut that expression entirely. Other fact expressions are more confusing, like Snapple's "Real Fact" bottle cap series. What does that mean? Why the scare quotes? And what's a fact, anyway? Philip B. Corbett starts out the discussion in the Times,
My colleague Patrick LaForge offered this timely reminder:
Fact-checking is in vogue, and for some reason the language of facts attracts all types of usage problems. I reviewed some of the more common mistakes in the “fact” entry from “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” then went looking for examples in our copy.
He found, among the various expressions of fact, the following recent abuses (we've added some thoughts and expressions of our own):
In point of fact. Instead, one should use "in fact" or, better, get rid of the expression completely, according to the Times.
The fact of the matter is. This LaForge explains, is a "flotsam phrase," so dubbed by author of Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner. I would lump it generally into the category of the crutch phrase—it's a way to get more time as you think about what you want to say as a speaker. It's unnecessary and cuttable and also sounds like a cliche, but might be considered to make its speaker sound smart; a fact-dropper as it were. That's a side effect of using the word fact: You become someone who, right or wrong, trades in the language of facts—and if you do it too often or too aggressively or hyperbolically, it may start to seem dishonest.
Actual fact: redundant. The Times shares the following example from their pages: "Yet Mr. Romney, too, sometimes talks about history in ways rooted more in wishful thinking than in actual fact." Also redundant: real facts (including Snapple's), true facts. Further, dubious facts or false facts are not, in fact, facts. They are untruths, or possibly lies. A fact is something that's actual, so there should be no need to modify as such or the opposite thereof. Caveat: Some do say that in law, a fact may be correct or not correct. But let's leave that for the legal types.
factoid: Via the Times, "This word tends to refer to a fact that is either useless or unsubstantiated." Fun fact: it was coined by Normal Mailer. Just say fact instead, is the recommendation of the Grey Lady, but consider the Merriam-Webster definition: "an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print." There could be some use for that, if we're clear that's the meaning we're hoping to convey.
Fact-checking. Use the hyphen when writing it out, per the Times, and, "let’s be very wary of applying it to the spin and countercharges put out by political campaigns. They aren’t the fact-checkers; we are."
We added a few fact-phrases of our own, and the facts you need to know when using them.
Just the facts, ma'am. This phrase was popularized as presumably stated by Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet, but that's a misquotation. The closet actual lines: "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am."
Fun fact. Even though we used it above, this tends to convey a certain amount of either greater earnestness or snideness than you might like. Is it really fun? Is it really a fact? The word fact seems serious and has the impact of drawing one's attention to something that is inherently real. The word fun rather belies that, even as we love to slap the two words together for an overall sardonic impact, something like "pro tip." (See also Fast Facts, which are good for magazine sidebars and pretty much nothing else.)
In fact. This is a bit like saying actually in that it's a correction of what's been said before, whether by one's own self or someone else. One generally need not say it, but when it is used, it's usually to emphasize a point that what was assumed to be correct is actually not, and something else is, in fact.
That's a fact! Probably should be avoided for its aw, shucks nature, unless it's being said ironically.
Facts of Life, The. A TV show featuring Mrs. Garrett and the girls that George Clooney once starred in for a brief time back in the '80s. Also, colloquially, "the birds and the bees." Use to refer to the former freely, the latter, rarely.
Due to the fact that. Just say because.
Factually. This is the adverb for fact and you may say it, but be careful about dropping it too often lest someone assume you're hiding the truth behind it. Factually is basically literally, so be careful with it.
Your main check with fact, though, is, do you have a fact? Do you need to say it's a fact? If not, say what it is actually, factually, and avoid the f-word altogether. Give another noun a chance now and again! Your readers, listeners, and, if you in fact have them, fact checkers will thank you.
Image via Flickr/Enokson.