Truth or Fact?

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Harshit Choudhary poses the question

What is the difference between “Fact” and “Truth”?

He goes on to offer his own definitions:

Fact: It will never change, e.g. Sun rise in the east. This is fact.
Truth: I am in New York. But all the time this statement couldn’t be true.

He suggests that fact indicates a universal truth while truth depends upon temporal circumstance.

To a large extent, the question of the difference between fact and truth is more philosophical than lexical.

Human beings have been asking Pilate’s question for centuries, “What is truth?”

English has numerous words to express the concepts of truth and fact:

veracity
truthfulness
verity
sincerity
candor
honesty
accuracy
correctness
validity
factuality
authenticity
certitude

Catch phrases used to emphasize the truth or factualness of something also abound:

in truth
in fact
in actual fact
as it happens
in point of fact
as a matter of fact
in reality
to tell the truth
if truth be told

Stephen Colbert has even given us a new word, truthiness, to allow for discrepancies between “truth” and “fact”:

truthiness: act or quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than those known to be true.”

Note: Colbert’s coinage was declared 2005 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

In a general sense, fact is easier to define than truth. A fact is something that possesses objective reality. The sun rises in the east. The Gregorian calendar is divided into twelve months. A child who eats too much candy may become ill or hyperactive.

Although often used interchangeably with it, truth is often felt to be a grander concept than fact.

Scientific “facts” may change from generation to generation as new methods of observation come into use, but for the most part, it’s safe to define fact as “an assertion that can be proved.” Truth, on the other hand, is not so easy to pin down. A work of fiction, for example, can be “true to life,” or “true to human nature.” For me, the word “fact” is firmly planted in the physical world, while “truth” has room to soar.

As for defining the two terms, it’s unlikely that the same definitions can satisfy everyone.

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26 Responses to “Truth or Fact?”

  • Daeng Bo

    In my education, a fact was simply something which could be proven right or wrong (i.e. not an opinion). Truth seems, then, to be a subset of facts which are actually true.

    Truthiness, though, is not a term coined by Colbert. In Javascript (a decade-old computer language), for example, expressions are evaluated for their truthiness: null, undefined, or false evaluate to “falsy,” while true, strings, and numbers evaluate to “truthy.” Evaluating truthiness is a boolean-like operation, proving that Colbert is extremely on-topic for this article, since strict boolean variables only take two values, true and false (i.e. a fact 😉 ).

  • Steve Ince

    “A child who eats too much candy may become ill or hyperactive.”

    How is this a fact?

  • mand

    I would have said that a fact is something that is so, whether or not anyone makes a statement about it, whereas truth is a quality of a statement (= whether it describes a fact or not).

    So, Daeng Bo, my statement equals your fact, i think. In my opinion it’s impossible to have a ‘fact’ which is not true, the definition of ‘fact’ includes the truth of it.

    I haven’t come across the words ‘truthy’ and ‘falsy’ but i love them! Colbert’s truthiness seems to be what i know as wishful thinking.

    Perhaps i’m not the best person to get into this question, having written essays (many moons ago) on whether truth necessarily is a yes/no dichotomy or whether vagueness can apply… and then there are emotional truth, and even more fun, truth in fiction… oh, academic nostalgia. 😉

  • Maeve

    Daeng Bo,
    You’ve made my day with those words “truthy” and “falsy”!

  • Laya

    Truth as per the AOED
    truth- the true facts about sth, rather than the things that have been invented or guessed:
    Do you think she’s telling the truth? Ç We are determined to get at (= discover) the truth. Ç The truth (of the matter) is we can’t afford to keep all the staff on. Ç I don’t think you are telling me the whole truth about what happened.2[U] the quality or state of being based on fact:
    There is no truth in the rumours. Ç There is not a grain of truth in what she says.
    a fact that is believed by most people to be true:
    universal truths Ç She was forced to face up to a few unwelcome truths about her family
    Fact as per the AOED

    fact – used to refer to a particular situation that exists:
    I could no longer ignore the fact that he was deeply unhappy. Ç Despite the fact that she was wearing a seat belt, she was thrown sharply forward. Ç Due to the fact that they did not read English, the prisoners were unaware of what they were signing. Ç She was happy apart from the fact that she could not return home. Ç Voluntary work was particularly important in view of the fact that women were often forced to give up paid work on marriage. Ç How do you account for the fact that unemployment is still rising? Ç The fact remains that we are still two teachers short. Ç The mere fact of being poor makes such children criminals in the eyes of the police.2[C] a thing that is known to be true, especially when it can be proved:
    Isn’t it a fact that the firm is losing money? Ç (informal) I haven’t spoken to anyone in English for days and that’s a fact. Ç I know for a fact (= I am certain) that she’s involved in something illegal. Ç The judge instructed both lawyers to stick to the facts of the case. Ç First, some basic facts about healthy eating! Ç The report is based on hard facts (= information that can be proved to be true). Ç If you’re going to make accusations, you’d better get your facts right (= make sure your information is correct). Ç It’s about time you learnt to face (the) facts (= accepted the truth about the situation).3[U] things that are true rather than things that have been invented:
    The story is based on fact. Ç It’s important to distinguish fact from fiction. IDIOMS
    I believe facts would substantiate truth or a truthful statement. This could be one way of clearly distinguishing between the two.

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    I think you made an unfortunate choice in your example of a fact. For at least a decade, scientists have been saying that children don’t exhibit more hyperactive behavior after eating sugar (see the links below). Perhaps this is a better example of truthiness.

    By the way, children don’t get Type 1 diabetes from eating too much sugar, either.

    Thanks for starting this interesting discussion.

    http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Scientists-set-on-busting-the-sugar-hyperactivity-myth

    http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52516

    http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/children/9911/22/diet.sugar.myth.kids.wmd/

  • kai-bo

    In the scientific world, facts are actually a weaker version of truth. A fact is something that is currently accepted as truth. Facts are subject to question and may be modified or even reversed in light of future discoveries.

    It is not a fact, for instance, that the sun rises in the east, the actual fact is that the world rotates toward the east, giving the appearance of a sunrise. Until it was determined that the earth rotated, the sun rising in the east was considered a fact.

    The truth is that facts are considered place holders for the truth, until the next version of the truth is discovered.

  • Kirby Rooks

    I like exploring and understanding the detail of words especially as to how they are related. This is a prime example exploring the words truth or fact.

    It helps our writing when we use words clearly and correctly, rather then using words that are habitual in certain situations.

    I believe communication is enhanced when we use words correctly. The response from Jesus to Pilate’s question in your post was “I have come to testify to the truth” and John’s Gospel records the facts of that testimony.

    Thanks for a very helpful post.

  • John Lieser

    Formerly I taught a course in semantics ( i.e. I retired from teaching English in 1999) and told my students to eschew the word————awesome. It is so trite that it lacks any freshness. In my generation the only comparable word is groovy. Also, isn’t the popular word duo——-safe haven redundant? Are there unsafe havens?

  • peter asher

    I don’t want to be too pedantic but the statement that it is a fact the sun rises in the east is not a ‘fact’. Although it is ‘true’ the sun does rise in the east it is not a fact. One question… where does it rise if you are at the North or South Pole. If you are at the North Pole it will rise in the south, if you are at the South Pole it must rise in the north.
    There lays the distinction between truth and fact. Truth is the sun will rise in the east but it is not a ‘fact’.

  • Cecily

    I’m more intrigued by the non-standard syntax of this sentence:

    “But all the time this statement couldn’t be true.”

    In standard BrE, that means it could never be true (all the time it is untrue). To get the meaning intended, we would change the word order and say “But this statement couldn’t be true all the time.”

    So is the usage in this post standard AmE, or just an idiomatic phrase, akin to “I ain’t got no…”?

  • Erik

    Veracity is one of my favourite words 🙂

  • Bill Cooney

    “…[I]t’s safe to define fact as ‘an assertion that can be proved.’”

    One caveat about “scientific” facts: In the realm of science, nothing is ever proved to be absolutely true; something is “factual” when numerous and/or repeated tests merely fail to disprove their assertions or predictions. For example: It is not absolutely true, or known, that gravity causes a rock to fall to the street when dropped from a tall building. Yes, it is—so far—deemed a fact (not an absolute truth) because there is as yet no better explantion.

    Scientists: Have I gotten this correct?

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    Bill,
    Thanks for pointing out that scientists use these terms differently. The link below has a nice, simple explanation of terms lay people often misunderstand. “Theory” is the biggie. People often think theory is similar to “guess” or “hypothesis,” but it’s more similar to “scientific law.”

    I don’t think you can even say that it’s a fact that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, or even that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s a prediction until the sun actually rises, then it’s a fact that it did rise.

    I’m not a scientist either, and a scientist may correct me if I’m wrong.

  • mand

    I don’t think there’s a problem with the candy-eating child example, since the statement given is: ‘A child who eats too much candy may become ill or hyperactive.’ Note ‘may‘ – until we have proven one way or the other, it’s true that the child may become hyperactive or ill.

    I hadn’t known about the scientists’ usage of ‘fact’, and didn’t know when i made comment 2. Seems much closer to the usual meaning of ‘statement’, to me. I learn something online every day! (The trick is retain every day’s new something. 😉 )

  • Lesslie Askin

    Not too much to add to the above comments, some of which are delightful.

    However, my own observation is that a simple dichotomous distinction, one that makes the antithetical nature of the two entities being compared apparent, is required. Thus I would contend the following:

    Truth is subjective (that is, personally experienced, with no necessity for the occurence of any external event); fact is objective (that is, experienced by at least two individuals … preferably more … who observe an event and agree that it occurred).

  • mand

    There seem to be many definitions of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, which alarmed me at first but is useful to know. Having written essays on this subject (years ago) i had no idea how many different interpretations are out there – but communication can only be improved by finding out how many meanings people will take away from the words one uses.

    I stand by the definitions as ‘truth’ = what actually is and ‘fact’ = the statement of it.

    There are kinds of truth, and emotional truth is a subjective one of course. One of my favourites of those essays was the one about truth in fiction: in what sense it is true, for example, to state that Sherlock Holmes wore a deerstalker. (As opposed to the statement that he habitually wore a bearskin, which would be false in all ways as long as your definition of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘bearskin’ are what i’m assuming!) But kinds of truth are not the point here.

    Of course the uses within the terminology of a specific discipline have their own definitions.

  • Rayner

    Facts must be based on (supposed) truths. Truth is based on proven understanding of something (forces of nature, scientific study, action & reaction).

    However, a fact becomes unfactual when the basis is untrue, and this can be because of a lie, wrong theories, wrong information, etc.

    Similarily the truth can be challenged or proved to be wrong/untrue.

    Depending on the level of importance of the truth/fact, a unfactual fact or an untrue truth can simply leads to a small misunderstanding to a global catastrophe.

  • joann

    how about the distinction of truth and correctness?
    please i need an anwser in 2 days…somebody help me…

  • Cecily

    @joann: I would say that “truth” usually refers to some wider, deeper issue, whereas “correct” is a more specific instance of whether something is right (not necessarily in a moral sense) or wrong. However, I would also say that “true” is more or less synonymous with “correct”, so I don’t suppose I have helped you much.

  • kayode olufemi

    Truth is more powerful than fact

  • kayode olufemi

    Truth is a spirirtual word while Fact is a natural word

  • Ebenezer

    Truth cannot change, fact is subject to change. Isaac Newton proved it as a fact that what goes up will come down. Many years later new law of aerodynamics has proved that aircraft can go up without coming down

  • samson

    Fact changes with the passing of time, eg TV set cost R1000 this week only. It is a fact because next week it may cost more or less depending on the demang and supply. But the fact that God loves us does not change and will never change. That is the truth.

  • Jim

    Many people insist there are truths and use the word like fact. I have maintained that truth is relative like a glass is half full or empty. When talking about objectivity and science the word fact is more precise which is what science is all about. Careful measurement and observation. As I have seen mentioned above, Fact is physical, objective, Truth is philosophical and subjective speaking about the conceptual quality of a statement or fact. We seldom see people use the term scientific truths. We say scientific facts. We speak of facts and statistics, not truths and statistics,
    Some people get very upset almost with religious fervor when you make the distinction between truth and fact. This tells me dogma runs deep and is not the soul bastion of religions, in fact nothing could be further from the “truth” 🙂

  • Robbie

    My understanding is that facts are statements world that we generally agree on, have supporting evidence for and cannot disprove. This being the case, facts are about the physical world.

    Facts are a form of truth.

    Truth is something that works, something that has not been proven to not work, and something someone believes to be a fair representation of an event, object, state of affairs or mind, or any other phenomena.

    As such, there can be seemingly conflicting truths: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The object of both statements has not changed, but the feeling toward that object has, hence the difference in these two truths.

    And there are truths that cannot be proved true or false: I feel affection for my girlfriend, is an example. No-one outside of my head can prove that statement, but it can be a true statement nonetheless.

    Generally, emotional truths differ from physical ones by being deeply personal and not necessarily in agreement with those held by others, whereas facts are necessarily impossible to reasonably dispute, and can be tested by others.

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