By the way vs. As a matter of fact

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A reader from Brazil asks for clarification on the expressions “by the way” and “as a matter of fact,” having heard that they are interchangeable expressions to be used when a person wants to change the subject of a conversation.

by the way
As one of its earliest meanings, the expression “by the way” had the literal meaning of “along the way” in the sense of something happening in passing on a journey. For example, “I lost my money by the way.”

The use of “by the way” in conversation is figurative. A person thinks of something else while in the process of talking:

We went to the Crystal Theater over the weekend to see Titanic. By the way, while we were there, we bumped into Leroy and his new girlfriend.

The expression does introduce a new subject, but not as a deliberate ploy to change the subject. The new subject has been suggested by something already being talked about.

as a matter of fact
This expression means, “in fact, really, actually.” Its strongest use is to correct a falsehood or misunderstanding, as in this example:

Most people probably believe that the actress Judy Holliday, who acted the part of a dumb blonde in Born Yesterday, was really of low intelligence. As a matter of fact, she had an IQ of 172.

In its weakened use, “as a matter of fact” still means, “in fact” or “actually,” but not in the sense of correcting a falsehood. It seems to be used as one might say indeed for emphasis or contrast.

Here are some examples from the Web:

I asked my sister if she drank diet soda. She told me that she did. As a matter of fact, she was getting ready to crack one open that moment.

At 12 years old, I wasn’t a fat kid. As a matter of fact, I was pretty skinny.

The weight isn’t going to instantly fly off in the first week. As a matter of fact, I gained weight before I started losing.

I am doing so well in my health. As a matter of fact I have dodged several colds that my husband has come down with.

Yes, you have to deal with co-workers. As a matter of fact, you have to interact with them daily.

It is possible that someone uncomfortable with the turn a conversation has taken might use one of these expressions to introduce an entirely new topic, but that is not their general function.

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2 thoughts on “By the way vs. As a matter of fact”

  1. Maeve, you never did emphasize the facts that “by the way” and “as a matter of fact” do not mean the same thing and they are NOT interchangeable.

    For a person whose native language is Portuguese, Spanish, German, Japanese, etc., those are important facts to know. Hit them with a hammer!

  2. I was surprised to read that (a) someone was told that these phrases were interchangeable and (b) they were told the phrases could be used to change the subject of the conversation. The only thing I can think of is that if someone is looking to abruptly change the subject of a conversation, they might interrupt the conversation with one of those phrases, as if starting to contribute to the current conversation but actually totally derailing it. If you have ever read Dave Barry’s humorous pieces, he does stuff like that, total non sequiturs. I can see my almost-22-year-old daughter, who thinks the world revolves around her, doing something like this. For example, let’s say that I am with my friend Melinda and my daughter. Let’s say that Melinda and I are talking about scrapbooking, and my daughter is therefore not the focus of the conversation. She would be looking for a way to swing the conversation to focus on HER (as usual). So the conversation might go something like this: ME: Hey Melinda, are you going to the next crop? MELINDA: Yes, I paid for it already. ME: Do you want to carpool? MELINDA: Sure, let’s grab breakfast first. At which point, my daughter might interrupt with: By the way, I’m going to South Beach that weekend.
    Excuse me???!

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