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September 1st, 2004

Detroit Tigers fan or Tiger fan? / what is a fact?

by Barbara Wallraff

Ruth Stokes, of Sterling Heights, Mich., writes: “My sister and I are having a discussion regarding salutations. If you want to write a fan of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, how would you begin the letter? I say it should be ‘Dear Tigers Fan,’ and she says it should be ‘Dear Tiger Fan.’ Can you set us straight? We will abide by your answer.”

Dear Ruth: Where I live, in the land of the Red Sox, the answer is more obvious than it may be in most places. “Dear Red Sock fan” is, of course, impossible. We might call someone who likes cats a “cat fancier.” But plural proper names, including the names of sports teams, tend to stay plural when they’re used as adjectives. If the person you’re writing is a fan of the Tigers, you should say “Dear Tigers fan.” Even if the person you’re writing is a fan of one particular Tiger, you should say “Dear Tigers fan,” because “Tigers” is a proper name being used adjectivally.

Ken Molly, of Eugene, Ore., writes: “In the current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the primary definition (listed first) for the word ‘fact’ is ‘information presented as true and accurate.’ ‘Presented as’? Can this be correct? If so, I am appalled. A person could knowingly present a falsehood as a fact! The second listed definition, ‘something having real, demonstrable existence,’ strikes me as more accurate. Even better, ‘fact: something verifiably true and accurate.’”

Dear Ken: Is this some kind of brainteaser? In fact (ahem), the first definition of “fact” in the current American Heritage Dictionary is “knowledge or information based on real occurrences.” The second definition is “something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed.” I checked all three previous editions of that dictionary too, and no edition gives what you say as its first two definitions of “fact.”

Did you know that some dictionaries -- among them America’s best-selling dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate -- list definitions in historical order, oldest to newest? According to the tiny type in the front of the American Heritage, however, “the central and often most commonly sought meaning” is indeed listed first. So at least what you imply when you call the first definition the “primary” one is true for this dictionary.

To sum up: In your letter you’ve presented as fact two statements that aren’t true, and the closest you’ve come to presenting information is in something you’ve implied without actually saying. Your facts are all wrong, man! Call me rude for saying so, but before you object to the wording I’ve used to say it, please consider the argument made in a usage note at the end of the American Heritage Dictionary’s “fact” entry: “‘Fact’ has a long history of usage in the sense ‘allegation of fact.’... This practice has led to the introduction of the phrases ‘true facts’ and ‘real facts,’ as in ‘The true facts of the case may never be known.’ These usages may occasion qualms among critics who insist that facts can only be true, but the usages are often useful for emphasis.”

I would certainly think twice before saying or writing “true facts.” But it’s worth keeping in mind that untrue things sometimes are presented as fact.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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