Weekly Excerpt From: GRAMMAR FOR PEOPLE WHO HATE RULES by Kathleen A. Watson

[This week’s excerpt seems appropriate when you consider the number of factoids currently being reported as fact.

Fact vs. Factoid:
Don’t Confuse the Two

Word meanings and their usage evolve and change. However, here’s one I’ve been keeping my eye on for years: factoid.

I first heard the word in graduate school, assuming it meant a tiny fact. I was wrong.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins let loose
with factoid in her Jan. 2, 2015, column. She wrote:

When Hillary Clinton thinks about running for president, do you think she contemplates the fact that no Democrat has been elected to succeed another Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856? We bring you this factoid in honor of the beginning of the 2016 election season.

Collins obviously chose factoid to convey an accepted historical fact. But consider the term’s history. American writer Norman Mailer coined it in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe.

Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” He created the word by combining fact with oid, meaning similar but not the same.

The Washington Times described Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact.”

Bottom line: A factoid is something that appears to be a fact but is not accurate or verified.

Other sources define factoid this way:

  • purporting to be factual or a phony statistic
  • seeming to be though not necessarily factual
  • a piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition

Here’s the problem:

Some sources define factoid as a little-known bit of true information; trivial but interesting data; a brief, somewhat interesting fact.

Something either is or is not a fact. A word with two opposite, contradictory meanings at the least misleads readers, and at the worst misinforms readers. I intend to stick to the original meaning of factoid as Mailer crafted it.

  • Killer Tip: Unless you are certain your reading audience understands the difference between fact and factoid, avoid using factoid.

Writing and grammar expert Kathleen Watson, fondly known as The Ruthless Editor, has nearly three decades of experience in both corporate and academic worlds. She has taught business people how to fine-tune their communication style, college students how to strengthen their writing, and Ph.D. candidates how to polish their dissertations. Kathy also has experience as a fiction and nonfiction book copy editor, working with a mix of new and experienced authors.

In addition to writing her own book on grammar, she blogs at RuthlessEditor.com, sharing weekly tips on how to write to get the job you want, earn the promotion you’ve worked hard for, and artfully explain your best ideas.

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