Q From Lorna Earnshaw in Australia; related queries came from Bruce Janson, Alan D Gray, Michael Gerchufsky, Ed Ver Hoef, Mike Weaver, Roy C Zukerman, and others.: I was surprised that you used the phrase true facts in last week’s issue. Can there be false facts?
A There can, for one particular sense of fact.
As the list of questioners shows, this phrase of mine raised many queries from the logical thinkers among subscribers. It is indeed sometimes argued that true facts is a tautology, since facts are facts and need no qualification. That opinion is firmly stated by — among others — Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1975) and by Roy Copperud in American Usage and Style (1980).
More recent style guides disagree. They assert that fact can be used in the sense of an allegation of fact, or of some statement that is open to doubt. An example is in a footnote in Volume Four of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire of 1788: “He gives some curious and probable facts; but his numbers are rather too high”. Many statements that purport to be facts turn out on closer examination not to be true, so it’s useful to have a phrase like true facts that specifically says “these facts are the correct versions; all previous statements are inoperative”. Writers often use it when denying or refuting some prior statement or belief.
As it happens, the phrase false facts is often found in respectable rhetoric. Thomas Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address of 1805 has: “Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint”. And Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “False facts, false reasoning, bad rhetoric, bad grammar, stale images, borrowed passages, if not borrowed sermons, are listened to without a word of comment or a look of disapprobation”.
The earliest example of true facts I know of is in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of February 1752, quoted in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “I flung it aside after fifty pages and laid hold of Mrs. Philips, where I expected to find at least probable, if not true, facts”. P G Wodehouse, a master of English prose, used it in a short story in 1928: “The prospect of getting the true facts — straight, as it were, from the horse’s mouth — held him fascinated”. It would be easy to quote another hundred examples, from authors such as Charles Darwin, H G Wells and George Orwell.
A rapid search of American and British newspapers found several hundred instances from the last few months alone, though I notice that it is rather more common in British newspapers than American ones. Here’s one recent instance from the Daily Telegraph, quoting a judge in a court case: “He knew that the vendor would not have sold to him if he had disclosed the true facts”. The evidence suggests that it is approaching, if it hasn’t already reached, the status of an idiom.