20

I'm struggling to decide whether to jettison use of the word fact, because the definition appears to be not solid enough to support continued usage. What do I mean by that? Look at one "meaning ladder" (taken from Random House via TFD Online) among several on the same page:

fact
1. something that actually exists: Your fears have no basis in fact.
2. something known to exist or to have happened.
3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.
4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened.
5. an actual or alleged event or circumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect or consequence.

This definition marches us from something that exists to something that is merely supposed to be true to something that may be "actual or alleged." (And yes, I am aware that dictionaries don't dictate the meanings of words; they record meanings from usages. And the meanings of this word as it is used and recorded in English seem to be antagonistic toward each other.)

What are we to do with all this? Does a fact require the modifier true to be judged genuine? When we preface a statement with "in fact" don't we mean What follows is the truth? The aforementioned dictionary certainly thinks so:

in fact, in truth; really; indeed: They are, in fact, great patriots.

Here fact and truth are equated absolutely. So I'm wondering: how do we distinguish between what is a fact in the sense of absolute truth and what is a fact of a lesser order? Other words can have many shades of meaning, but this one seems somehow like it shouldn't. So if I hear the word fact without hearing true before it, does it even deserve the term?

A cautionary note

I'm not really looking for a discussion of truth in the philosophical sense. The scope of this question is limited to the meaning of a word in English, not the meaning of an absolute concept as rational beings can or should understand it. What I'm really after, as I mentioned in a comment, is whether the adulteration of this particular word renders it, ultimately, meaningless, and therefore something to be avoided.

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    A fact must be true, but then, what is truth?? (You're asking a question that philosophers have puzzled over for millennia.) – Hot Licks May 28 '15 at 11:33
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    Yet you ask "how do we distinguish between what is a fact in the sense of absolute truth and what is a fact of a lesser order?" – Hot Licks May 28 '15 at 11:37
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    @Robusto: Your dilemma can be restated: Can I use a word precisely if other people use it loosely? Definitions found in dictionaries simply describe the word as it is used in various contexts. Any prescriptive authority boils down to "people don't use the word that way in that context". Context is king, also in lexicography. – TRomano May 28 '15 at 12:49
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    'a true fact' is a pleonasm, yes. But 'in fact' is an idiom meaning 'it has been established'. Also, people may use 'in fact' wishfully. I don't think this is like 'literally'. – Mitch May 28 '15 at 12:52
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    What resources can we provide? What evidence do you require. It is, I suspect, one of those interesting, but subjective, questions which cannot have a "right" answer. Ultimately you, the OP, will choose the answer which you "agree" with most, and not the most objective one (ironically an answer containing hard cold facts). If this had been asked by anyone else, it would have been immediately closed as POB. – Mari-Lou A May 28 '15 at 18:33

13 Answers 13

30

A fact does, in fact, have to be the truth at the time you're using the word.

By 'truth', I mean something you believe to be true (due to any of several possible reasons).¹

Consider: "The number of planets in the solar system is eight." A few years ago, this was not a fact. It is now. (Just an example, don't attack the example.)

[EDIT: Before 1917, people thought it to be a fact that the atom was the smallest particle of matter. Today, it is a fact that it isn't, and we were wrong in thinking it was... I'm including this example to show that in light of the new fact, what we thought was a fact previously, can be rendered untrue for that time too; something @Jay pointed out my previous example didn't specify]

When a jury convicts a man, it's a fact that he's guilty. If he's later acquitted, it's a fact that he is 'not guilty'. (As far as the public is concerned. Individuals who actually saw the crime might know, for a fact, whether it's true or not)

What I'm trying to say is that the word fact is used for what you know (or sincerely believe) to be the truth or what is widely believed to be the truth at the time of speaking. Facts are subject to change.

Something is not a fact if you know/believe it to be untrue or if it can be easily be shown to not be widely believed at the time.

The two can contradict. That's when myth comes into play.

Tom: "Interesting fact: you can see the Great Wall of China from space." (Widely believed).

Neil: "As a matter of fact, you can't. That's a myth." (I went to space. I know better.)


¹ Please note that I'm talking exclusively about the cases where you use the word fact. In those cases, I infer you strongly believe it to be true.

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    Robusto: Tom's usage in "Interesting fact" is not a slippage of meaning of 'fact', it is just wrong. Just as if you point at a dog and say 'cat'. You may mean 'cat' sincerely or have bad eyesight or have had an aneurysm, but either way it is a mistake. – Mitch May 28 '15 at 13:36
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    The phrase "a fact in law" is not uncommon, IME, and reflects the idea that the legal meaning of guilt and innocence is not, in fact, definitive and a legal fact may really be a fiction (a "technicality") or even nonsense ('"for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction." "If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass..."' — Dickens, Oliver Twist) – Nagora May 28 '15 at 14:13
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    I (a lawyer) have never heard the phrase "a fact in law" in legal practice. Fictions are not facts, nor are presumptions. They are things treated as true even if either they aren't or are not known to be. I doubt whether there was ever a presumption that a wife acted under husband's direction so as to assign the wife's criminal actions to the husband. I don't think that is how couverture worked. – Francis Davey May 28 '15 at 15:03
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    @sgroves: You're right. But the example works better with moon. And Neil. Neil Armstrong did actually go on the record debunking this myth. – Tushar Raj May 28 '15 at 17:34
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    @DjangoReinhardt: A fact is something you believe to be true. That does NOT imply that everything you believe to be true is a fact. And before 1917, "all possible knowledge" backed up an atom not being splittable. Just like today "all possible knowledge" back up countless scientific facts which are bound to be revised in the future. – Tushar Raj May 29 '15 at 16:56
12

There are some good answers here. I thought it would be useful to expand on meaning (5) in your list, in case you ever have to deal with it.

In English common law, most matters (criminal or civil) came to be tried by a jury. Over time a rule developed that some questions would be decided by the jury and others by the judge. The jury decided questions of fact whereas the judge decided questions of law.

For example, in the English law of theft, one element of the crime that must be established by the prosecution is that the defendant acted "dishonestly". The meaning of "dishonest" is a question of law, but whether the defendant was dishonest according to that definition is a question of fact.

There are practical consequences of this distinction. In English criminal procedure, you may appeal the judge's decision on questions of law, but not the jury's decision on questions of fact.

In this usage "fact" is used in a slightly technical sense in opposition to the word "law" but it is essentially intended to be restricted to statements that are true, at least that is the hope.

  • +1 Thanks for that clarification on meaning 5, I knew it had to me something like that. And apologies for the cheap shot in my answer...it just seemed to fit the argument I was making too well. – JeffSahol May 28 '15 at 17:53
  • @JeffSahol - no worries. I both practice and teach law and I am very well used to the cheap shots. – Francis Davey May 28 '15 at 19:02
  • Just want to add that this is in fact the historical definition of the word, all the way up to the 16th century or so, and hence its persistence in the English legal system. – Yang May 29 '15 at 7:13
  • The word "alleged" used in the dictionary should also be seen in a legal context, e.g. "al-legation", to support a plea/legal claim, and under law, of course, all allegations need to be scrutinized. This is different from the common use in which use of the qualifier "alleged" is often inherently mixed with a heavy dose of skepticism. – Yang May 29 '15 at 7:16
8

Your question sounds as if you are in a Quixotic fight against a particular false Scotsman, not realising that there is no such thing as a true Scotsman, or for that matter, a true X for any word X whatsoever.

You could just as well be "struggling to decide whether to jettison use of the word word, because the definition appears to be not solid enough to support continued usage". There is no clear boundary between what is a word and what isn't. Is "ouch" a word? Or "hmmm"? How about "Aargh"? "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh"? Is "blasé" an English word? What about "révisioniste"? Is "Agatha"? And "Christie"? Is the symbol used by 'the artist formerly known as Prince' a word? Is "a priori" an English word? Or is it two? How about the two constituents? Note also that in languages which do not separate words by spaces, it can be practically impossible to distinguish separate little function words from suffixes or prefixes.

Who is this I who is struggling anyway? Do you mean your body, your mind (whatever that is) or your soul (whatever that is)? Did this I already exist when 'you' were born and possessed only a tiny percentage of the atoms that you would now consider your own, whereas many of the atoms 'you' possessed then have found something else to do in the meantime? Did it already exist before you could think clearly and create memories that you can still draw on?

What do you mean by struggle to decide? Who is this ominous person trying to prevent you from deciding, the one you apparently have to struggle against?

What do you mean by the definition? Since when do words have unique, well defined definitions? Where would you be able to find the one true definition of a word? How would you be able to understand it without using similar definitions for all the words used in it, leading to loops and an infinite regress?

Facts are true because (in some sense that I don't wish to make precise) the meaning cloud for the word fact is mostly a subset of the meaning cloud for the word true. Although false facts are mostly outside the one for true, while still in the periphery of the one for fact.

For similar reasons, birds can fly even though some birds have broken wings or happen to be penguins. And facts are true even though some are not.

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    Nicely put: "For similar reasons, birds can fly even though some birds have broken wings or happen to be penguins. And facts are true even though some are not." – DCShannon May 28 '15 at 21:26
  • This answer... is beautiful. – wavemode May 29 '15 at 2:15
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    Except the poster said he was NOT asking for a philosophical discussion on the nature of truth, but simply a clarification on the definition of the word "fact". – Jay May 29 '15 at 6:08
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    @Jay: True enough, yet I enjoyed this answer so much that I voted it up. :) – Robusto May 29 '15 at 11:47
  • @Hans: The person I'm struggling with to decide is, of course, myself. – Robusto May 29 '15 at 20:11
7

Does a “fact” have to be true?

No.


Here is a detailed definition of fact from OED for the sense that we are dealing with:

A thing that has really occurred or is actually the case; a thing certainly known to be a real occurrence or to represent the truth. Hence: a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to an inference, a conjecture, or a fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based on it.

But it is also mentioned that:

Where the truth of a matter is disputed or in doubt, this sense overlaps with sense "A piece of information allegedly or conceivably true; something presented as a fact but which is disputed or unproven; (more strongly) an unproved assertion, an allegation."

In fact, the truth is, it depends.

You understand that the fact is not a truth from the context. Usually, the negative words like false, unproven, disputed etc. reveal that. (They might modify fact also.)

Some examples from OED:

  • This is..a false fact, supported by a supposed motive - 1824, Westm. Rev.
  • It bases its accusations on false statements and inaccurate facts. - 1941, A. M. Lindbergh Diary

  • Waksal hotly disputed some of the facts in that story. - 2002, Vanity Fair

Note: Of course it can be discussed or interpreted further but I focused on the usage of the word.

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    Another example occurs in the expression "You've got your facts wrong," which, as I understand it, means "The instances or data points you are putting forward or are basing your argument on are not valid." The interesting thing (to me) about this expression is that it doesn't say, as it could have, "Your facts aren't facts [that is, factual]." Instead, it emphasizes that the instances or data points are not valid, even while conceding that they may still be called "facts." – Sven Yargs May 28 '15 at 21:50
  • @SvenYargs: Good catch. I prefer saying "Those aren't the facts" myself. – Tushar Raj May 29 '15 at 3:43
  • To me the caveat reads the same as if, considering the meaning of the word "horse", the dictionary said, "where the species of a creature is disputed or in doubt, this sense overlaps with the sense, "a creature allegedly or conceivably a horse: something presented as a horse but which is disputed or unproven"". Normally I wouldn't say "your facts aren't true, and I'll prove it", and I wouldn't say "your horse is a cow, and I'll prove it". But you certainly can, in both cases using "X" to mean "so-called X" or "alleged X". Am I missing a subtlety that applies to facts but not horses? – Steve Jessop May 29 '15 at 13:39
  • ... or is this just a particularly noteworthy case of the general phenomenon for any word, that it can be used provisionally when the truth is in doubt? – Steve Jessop May 29 '15 at 13:41
6

I think that you are reading too much into the last two definitions listed. The fifth one is apparently a legal term of art and as we all know lawyers have little use for the actual truth. The fourth covers instances where facts are asserted without being verified. If I asked a group of toddlers for a list of facts about where babies come from, that's still a list of facts.

Finally, the same argument can be made for truth, "a fact or belief that is accepted as true" being one of its meanings. So now we're trespassing into the realm of epistemology.stackexchange.com.

5

"What I'm really after... is whether the adulteration of this particular word renders it...meaningless, and therefore something to be avoided."

The word is not being "adulterated"; it is being used in different ways in different speech contexts.

A fact is that which exists or existed, happens or happened, and which can, as a result, be *known, thought, supposed, believed, stated, averred, alleged, etc".

These ancillary definitions involving speech contexts are not really definitions of "fact" per se but of the kinds of mental attitudes we can express, or the kinds of predications we can make, in respect to ontological fact. The lexicographers have made a leap from ontology to (everyday) epistemology.

  • You say the word "is being used in different ways in different speech contexts." That's fine for most words, but that's part of what I'm trying to establish. When is it OK for a "fact" not to be true? – Robusto May 28 '15 at 19:05
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    An ontological fact exists; it is neither true nor false. "True" is an attribute of predication. A statement is "a statement of fact" (i.e. true) when it comports with the ontological fact(s) it's about. A statement that does not comport with the ontological fact(s) is a falsehood. When someone knowingly calls a falsehood a "fact" (by which they mean "a statement of fact"), they're said to be lying. – TRomano May 28 '15 at 19:34
  • @TimRomano: Beautifully put. May I suggest editing that into your answer. +1. – Tushar Raj May 29 '15 at 3:48
2

When I refer to something as a fact, without qualifications, I am implying that it is true. This situation is not much different than when I say something like "I ate a grapefruit for breakfast." I am implying that I actually did. I might be lying, but the meaning of my sentence is that my eating of a grapefruit is the truth. I can refer to an event as alleged, no longer implying it is necessarily true: "Allegedly, he ate a grapefruit for breakfast." Similarly, I can use the word fact to refer to that event, whether true or not: "The alleged fact of your eating a grapefruit is immaterial to the question at hand." It is possible to drop the word alleged in this last sentence, and without it, the sentence will be ambiguous about whether I am implying that you did eat a grapefruit. Some people will interpret it to mean I implied you did, others will interpret it to mean I am agnostic.

2

As the definitions you quote indicate, the word "fact" is used in two different senses. It can mean something that is true, or it can mean something that is claimed to be true, but which may or may not actually be true.

On the one hand, people will say things like, "It is a fact that Senator Jones accepted a bribe." Meaning, this statement is true. Or conversely, "No, that's not a fact at all." Meaning, that statement is false.

On the other hand, people also commonly say things like, "The facts are in dispute", meaning, we are arguing about what is true and what is not. Editors talk about "fact-checking" a document to determine whether the facts it states are true or not. We talk about "unproven facts" or "questionable facts". We say, "You have your facts wrong." Etc. If the word "fact" was understood to mean "statements that are true", then it would be a paradox to say "unproven facts" or "disputed facts" or "the facts are wrong". How can something that we all know is true be in dispute, etc?

2

From Hard Facts: nuances in meaning and usage exist, but there are good reasons to use both terms:

  • What is the clear difference between a fact and a truth? Well, if you look into most dictionaries, you will be amazed to find that the two words are actually very close in terms of their definitions. This is because the two terms are very much related. That’s why you really can’t blame people for recognizing both as similar terms.

  • Fact is basically something that exists, or is present in reality. Hence, these are things that can be seen visually, and these are the things that can actually be verified. Facts are objective matters rather than subjective ones. It is not just something that you believe, but rather these are more or less the things that can be observed empirically, or by the senses. So, facts can be seen and heard, as well as proven by the other senses.

  • Truth can be described as the true state of a certain matter, may it be a person, a place, a thing or an event. It is what a person has come to believe. If he believes that something is true, then it is true. It also answers the questions of what’s really happening. In the technical sense, facts can answer certain ‘why’ questions, like ‘where’ or ‘when’, and even ‘how’, while truth answers the question ‘why’. The question of ‘how’, and even ‘what’, are said to be answerable by either of the two.

  • In terms of permanence, a fact happens to be more permanent, and almost always seems to have no changes. It is more constant than truths. For example, when you say that the sun will always rise from the east and set in the west, you are telling a fact, but when you say that you are in Los Angeles, then that is a truth, at least for that exact moment. Several hours from that time you may have gone somewhere else, making your previous statement a fallacy. Thus, a truth is something that is not universal, it is more subjective, and depends on the current situation. That’s why the truth’s existence is said to be more temporary than that of facts.

    1. Facts are more objective when compared to the more subjective truths.
    2. Facts are more permanent when compared to the more temporary truths.
    3. Facts exist in reality, whereas truths are usually the things that one believes to be true, or the things that are true in the current situation.
    4. Facts can also answer the ‘where,’ ‘when’ and ‘how’ questions, whereas truths answer the ‘why’ question.
2

I'm not really looking for a discussion of truth in the philosophical sense. The scope of this question is limited to the meaning of a word in English, not the meaning of an absolute concept as rational beings can or should understand it.

I'm afraid you are looking for a discussion of truth in the philosophical sense, because you can't isolate the meaning of a single word that way. Nearly everyone agrees that facts are necessarily true; they disagree on what "truth" means. The de re definition of "fact" for any one person is "a true statement about the phenomenal world", but when one person writes out definitions for all the different usages of "fact", that person writes each definition de re with respect to his or her own definition of truth, so they all come out different. That's what accounts for all the different definitions of fact.

  • Which is why the quoted passage has an ending, one you apparently did not feel compelled to address. – Robusto Jan 19 at 2:29
  • Of course you can isolate the meaning of a single word that way. Colloquially acceleration generally means going faster. We hardly ever say the car is accelerating when it's braking. In physics however and even approaching the question philosophically it's still acceleration, just in an opposite direction. It's like saying retreating is advancing in the opposite direction. The point is the question is about the English as it's spoken by ordinary people. – Zebrafish Jan 19 at 6:08
  • @Zebrafish Neither you nor Robusto understand my answer. There is no common de dicto "colloquial meaning" used by "ordinary people" for "fact", because there is no common colloquial meaning, even among "ordinary people", to "truth". So you can only give a de re definition of fact, not a single de dicto definition. Look up "de re / de dicto" if you don't know what that means. – Phil Goetz Feb 4 at 22:21
1

If you want to know how the word "fact" is used in English, that is quite different from what philosophers or mathematicians consider "fact". So I don't know why this whole thread got filled with intellectual reasoning and rhetoric to demonstrate what really is and isn't fact. Fact is related to truth, and truth is enough of a confusing subject of debate. But that's not what you're asking as far as I can see. Here are some more definitions like the one you provided which seemed to prompt you to ask this question:

c. Something believed to be true or real:
American Heritage Dictionary

2:a piece of information presented as having objective reality
("presented as having" does not refer to "real" fact - whatever that means)
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Other definitions are along the lines of:

"information known to be true".

Would you admit that I can "know" something and be wrong? If that's true, then all other dictionaries allow for "fact" to mean something which is NOT true scientifically/objectively/verifiably.

So if you are interested in how the word "fact" is used in the language itself, forgetting the rigorous definitions of truth and fact that have to do with verification, and leaving apart the special study of epistemology and all the philosophical stuff, it's clear to me that when used in our language "fact" does not always mean something that is true.

That's my answer.

However, since this became one massive discussion of what "fact" is from a philosophical/epistemological/metaphysical perspective, I want to point out some things I read which I disagree with:

A fact is something which all available evidence supports to be true", and NOT "A fact is something which is believed to be true by someone (eg. UFOs)".

All available evidence supported that Newtonian mechanics governed the motion of all things. That didn't even make it "true" back then (using the strict meaning of true).

The same is true of "fact". Facts do not change over time, as you want to argue.

Let's say the basis of whether something is fact is a definition, like the IAU's definition of a planet. Pluto is no longer a planet, but a dwarf planet, making the statement "Pluto is not a planet" a fact. Suppose the IAU change the definition tomorrow. Has the fact changed?

0

There are basically two types of facts: Universals, which are universally true and is usually part of common sense about how the physical world works, and Facts that are statements you believe are true, but not necessarily.

In your precise case, about the usage of the word "fact" for communication purpose, we must also account for the incompleteness and incertainty of the interlocuter: he/she may be using a prejudice that is just false, or be lying, or just misestimating his/her level of confidence in the statement he/she made.

So, in the end, a fact can only be what one believe is true, as opposed to what is true universally.

BTW, this is a very important topic of research in knowledge representation, logics, artificial intelligence and in any ontological system (ie, systems that represent knowledge) in general.

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    ontology is being, epistemology is knowing. – TRomano May 28 '15 at 19:40
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    Your argument sounds like we can't REALLY know anything. I agree, technically. – Zebrafish Jan 19 at 4:41
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    See, here we have one particular metaphysical system being asserted: the medieval view that truth is about universals, while facts are contingient statements about Aristotelian accidental properties. And the person making it isn't aware that this is an entirely different conception of truth and fact than a modern scientist would make, using a metaphysics which denies the existence of universals; or that a post-modernist would make, defining "facts" as social conventions; or that a pragmatist would make, defining "truth" as a praxis which proves useful. – Phil Goetz Feb 5 at 2:58
-2

Yes, a fact has to be true -- in a verifiable sense, unlike an opinion. If a statement is not true, then it is not a fact (even if the person believes it to be so).

The ever reliable, NOAD gives this listing:

fact |fakt| noun a thing that is indisputably the case : she lacks political experience—a fact that becomes clear when she appears in public | a body of fact.

A belief is not "indisputable", so a belief, without any other evidential backing, cannot be a fact by definition.

There may be some cases where something previously considered fact has become untrue, due to the evidence available at the time being superseded by newer evidence. However, at no time was something that was disputable considered a "fact", it was only that we didn't have the additional information to dispute it.

Consider Donald Trump's belief that more people attended his inauguration that any other President's in history. He may believe it with every fibre of his being, but despite his belief, at no point is he stating a "fact" by making that claim.

  • You're oversimplifying this, I'm afraid. Rightly or wrongly, anything can be called a fact, even if it's not verifiable. Beliefs, opinions, and judgment calls are often confused with facts. Even NOAD seems to be inconsistent with its example: "She lacks political experience" could easily be an erroneous assumption based on perceived stage fright or a bad outing at a debate. – J.R. May 29 '15 at 20:43
  • In the NOAD example, we can assume the fact is true, J.R. :) It's made up, after all. The example is simply there to show the word's place in a sentence, not get into this larger debate about "truth". – Django Reinhardt May 29 '15 at 20:45
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    It bends my brain that an English language community has fallen into the trap of debating philosophy. A fact is a true statement. If it's determined to be untrue, then it's no longer a fact (and indeed, never was a fact). – Django Reinhardt Feb 5 at 10:12

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