As a matter of fact

I don’t want to appear too grouchy, but every now and then, I can’t help noticing some little quirk of writing or of speech that I can’t help finding irritating. Why I should be irritated, I do not know: I am sure I too am, albeit unconsciously, guilty of many turns of phrase in my own writing that irritate the hell out of others. Be irritated not, that ye irritate not others. But sometimes, one simply needs to get it off one’s chest. So here goes.

Why is it – I do hope the reader does not find the use of rhetoric questions to make a point irritating – why is it, I wonder, that when people use the word “fact”, they do not really mean “fact”? A fact is clearly defined; it is something that is established and generally agreed to be true: water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and freezes at zero; Lima is the capital of Peru; Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa; the Taj Mahal is in Agra; and so on. And yet, every time anyone says or writes “in fact…”, or “as a matter of fact…”, or “despite the fact that…”, or anything of that nature, what follows is almost invariably anything but a fact! It is an opinion, or a hypothesis, or a theory, or an assumption … but not a fact. Damn it! – look up the dictionary and find out what “fact” means before using the word!

And another thing … Why does everyone use the word “amazing” to mean something is “very good”? What amazed them about it? Didn’t they expect it to be very good?

And “begging the question” does not mean “implicitly raising a question”. It refers to the logical fallacy of assuming beforehand what one is setting out to prove or to demonstrate.

Any other common turn of phrase that you find annoying? Please feel free to comment below. Even if it turns out that I am guilty of using these turns of phrase myself. I won’t mind at all, as a matter of fact.

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20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on February 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    This made me laugh as I think that I overuse both “Amazing” and “As a Matter of fact”.

    I suspect that this is an exclusively American phenomena, but the very irritating “Not for nothing” is rampant in people’s speech as of late.

    Reply

    • I suppose we’re all guilty of these things! i certainly am. But as I explain below, it’s when I see sloppy use of language in work by professional writers, Ifeel something is not qute right!

      Reply

  2. “Unique” is misused all the time. Unique is singular — only one — so nothing can be most unique or very unique.

    Also writers keep saying they know something when they don’t. We think and believe many things but know very few. I say that I know the sun will rise tomorrow or that spring will follow winter. That is a matter of belief, not knowledge. The universe may implode 10 minutes from now, and so I cannot KNOW what will happen until it actually does. These are extreme examples and I along with others, will go on confidently saying that we know the sun will rise tomorrow.

    Writers also assert knowledge of things they cannot possibly know, like another person’s state of mind, now or in the future. This is prediction, not knowledge.

    I know she will be glad to see me.
    I know that he has hatred in his heart.
    We know that If we increase taxes, the economy will go to hell.
    We know that statement cannot possibly true. (Really?)

    Reply

    • Indeed,something is either unique or it isn’t. Same goes for “perfect” – something is either perfect or it isn’t, and there are no shades in between. And yet, I frequently say – and write – things like “one of the most perfect examples of …” etc. If “perfect” is an absolute value, you can’t have “more” or “less” perfect! And yet i do this all the time.

      I suppose that in the instances you give, “i know” is a shorthand of “I am very confident that…”

      Reply

  3. I’m not annoyed as much as amused, but I’m easily entertained.

    Reply

    • Me too! But i do have an image to project of being a grouchy old git… 🙂

      It is interesting, though, to examine the words we tend to use without always thinking closely about what they mean!

      Reply

  4. In Portuguese we don’t use that expression; instead we tend to overuse ‘Na verdade…’ which means ‘In truth…’ I suppose it’s equally misused and irritating.

    Also, I’m awarding you the Blog of the Year award:

    http://storberose.blogspot.pt/2013/02/blog-of-year-2012-award.html

    Reply

  5. Posted by Maureen on February 24, 2013 at 7:35 am

    ‘Awesome’ … though I do think that ‘awesomize’ could be a rather delightful verb. ‘We’ll be awesomizing your flight experience this evening at 30,000 feet with an amazing meal prepared by one of the world’s most outstanding chefs,’ for example.

    Reply

    • It’s interesting that we can still use the noun “awe” to convey a sense of overwhelming wonder, and even a sense of being intimidated; but we no longer have an adjective related to this noun that can convey anything similar! “Awe-inspiring”, i suppose, but i have always found that a bit clumsy.

      Reply

  6. I don’t get angry or annoyed about these things, because I’m one of those people who believes language changes. The examples you give about the word “fact” for instance: when I use “in fact”, I don’t imagine I’ve ever paused to wonder once in my life whether what follows is actually a “fact”; “in fact”, to me, is just a phrasal construction which implies some sort of extra point you’re trying to make, some argument that’s better than the previous one you put forward (or something like that, I’m not going to sit down and try and define it analytically); maybe once it had something to do with “facts”, but I think this meaning has drifted sufficiently.

    (Or I could put forward an absurd version of your position. For instance, the verb “to want” means “to lack”, and not – as people are constantly using it these days – “to desire”. When someone says, “I want a iPhone 5”, they are merely stating that they don’t have one, and implying nothing about whether they would like one. Children are particularly bad at this).

    What does annoy me is people pointing out such “errors”, particularly using “less” instead of “fewer”.

    “Literally” is a classic example, which usually leads to some amusement, but that’s only because “literally” has lost, in part, its original meaning and has just become a word of emphasis.

    I also thing, in the world of literary criticism, the word “original” has changed its meaning, and now is simply a word of praise, having no implication about whether any given work is actually “original”.

    Reply

    • Hello Obooki, I think I agree with you as far as the spoken word is concerned. Very few of us, I imagine, are sufficiently articulate to use the correct word in the correct manner consistently: our brains tend not to work at the speed of speech, and, as a consequence, our speech is littered with, well, sort of, like, er, fillers. And phrasal constructs like “in fact”. And even malapropisms when words refuse to obey our call. I plead guilty to all of this and more. (I do realise that i had said above “quirk of writing or of speech”: I really shouldn’t have.)

      However, when we are speaking of professional writers – i.e. people paid for their writings – it seems to me that different standards should be applied.For the basic constituents of writing are words, and when writers are being paid to write, we have a right to expect, I think, that they should think about the words they are using. Not to do so is sloppy. That language does change over time is not, I think, a mitigating factor when it comes to sloppiness.

      i was being partly tongue in cheek in writing my post above, but not, I think, entirely tongue in cheek. For I really do not think that a professional author has any excuse at all for using the expression "begging the question" without understanding what it means. neither is there an excuse for a professional writer to describe as "fact" that which isn't.

      Recently, in some book ( I can't remember which one), I came across "a massive hole". In general, "massive" has come to mean "very big", and if I were to hear someone say this, or even if I were to come across it in the work of an amateur writer, I wouldn't think twice. But this was a professional writer, and I couldn't help wondering: "How much mass does a hole have?" Such imprecise use of words only comes about when a writer isn't thinking clearly about the words he or she is using, and I really don't think that is good enough from someone who is paid to do so. Good writers should be able to express thoughts and ideas that are often elusive, subtle, and nuanced, and to this end, they should have sufficient command over language to use it in a constructive manner. But if they fail even to think about the precise meanings of words when expressing everyday matters, I can't say I have any great confidence that they have will sufficient control over language to express matters more subtle. Ultimately, imprecise use of language does lead, I think, to a diminished range of expression.

      Reply

      • …for, after all, if the word “literally” does lose its meaning entirely through misuse, and becomes merely a word to indicate emphasis, what word do I use when I really do mean “literally”? Does not constant misuse of this nature diminish our expressive range?

      • I guess I’ve always been a believer that the written language is not, as its stylistic best, an artificial construct divorced in its way from the oral language. It depends exactly what you’re writing though.

        As to “literally”, I don’t believe the absence of a word would diminish our expressive range – either there are similar words we will use in its stead, or we will construct a phrase to get across our meaning, or the true meaning of the word will come back into fashion, or people will be able to tell plainly by context whether you are meaning the word “literally” literally or otherwise. Language and expression is not restricted by words (this is nonsense dreamed up by literary theorists and paranoid lapsed-communists).

      • “Literary theorists and paranoid lapsed communists” … I love it!

        Although I am neither a literary theorist nor yet a lapsed communist, paranoid or otherwise, I fail to see what language can be other than certain words in a certain order. And expressive use of language comes from striving to put the right words in the right order. Some, admittedly, are better at this than others: that’s what makes them better writers. “Similar words” aren’t good enough: to write precisely, the precise word is required. How else can one aim for precision in one’s writing? And if the writer uses words sloppily such that the precise meanings of near-synonyms – “similar words” – blend into each other; and the demarcations between words in terms of subtlety and of nuance count for little or for nought; then I can’t really see how the expressive range of language can remain unscathed. There has not been a fine writer yet who has not chosen words with care.

        If we lose our sensitivity to the different nuances of “similar words”; if we lose our ability to sense the subtleties of difference; then language becomes, I think, a very blunt instrument, incapable of any fineness. Then writers would lose the ability to convey anything with any precision (from my experience of browsing through volumes in a bookshop, most of them already have); and readers would fail to detect them even if they are there. We would then be in a world where all that can be expressed are but crude approximations.

        The connection between the spoken word and the written is an interesting one. Perhaps I am unduly influenced by my own shortcomings in this respect, in that I don’t always find it easy to think of the right word or the right expression at conversational speed. Writing allows us greater time to “get it right” – or, at least, to get it “better”.

  7. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on March 4, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    The one that most annoys me about myself is using ‘to be honest’ reflexively in everyday natter. I’m not particularly honest at all, really, and feel like Freddy Flintoff, who also uses it regularly. It could be a Lancastrian thing.

    Reply

  8. Posted by alan on March 26, 2013 at 12:39 am

    I think we’ve lost “to beg the question”, or rather it means two things now.
    Maybe an elderly judge would use the original meaning.

    Reply

    • Yes, you’re probably right. The more’s the pity.

      We hear much about language being fluid, that it is constantly changing anyway, and so on. But it does seem to me that just about every change I can think of that has taken place in my lifetime, or is taking place now, is a consequence not of different things being required from language, but, rather, from widespread ignorance. And I really cannot see this being a good thing. It’s bound to restrict our range of expression, and, as a consequence in the long term, our range of thought.

      Reply

  9. I like the fact that you have a ‘rant’ tag. Must go and read the others now.

    For myself, I deliberately misuse ‘literally’, or perhaps I mean that I use it in one of its modern ways. Then I wait to see if anybody will point out that I did not literally die of exhaustion or whatever. Then I can smile to myself about how that person is a pedant who doesn’t understand the fluidity of language the way I do. Is that some kind of meta-pedantry, do you think? It’s an annoying trait in me, anyway.

    Reply

    • Hello Jo, good to see you here!

      Indeed- one of the primary reasons for setting up this blog ws to give myself space for a bit of a rant when I feel like it. And if you do indeed do a search on “Rant” tag, you’ll find I’ve had quite a bit to rant about over the last three years!

      “Meta-pedantry” is a new one to me – I love it!

      Reply

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