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F is for Fact – A word that should never be used lightly.

The very first student essay I ever graded was for a course in Russian history. The student chose to write on Russian attitudes to private property - not an easy topic. I was impressed!

But in his very first paragraph, I came to this sentence: "In fact, Russians never had real experience with private property."

Hmmm... Well... not true. To be sure, Russian peasants traditionally held land through a communal unit known as the mir. But city folk owned houses and factories and taverns and workshops...the aristocracy owned great bit whopping private estates (plus, until emancipation, all the serfs that went with the estates)... and before the revolution some peasants were beginning to hold land privately too.

But forget Russia. (For now, I mean, not forever of course. Because that's one super-big country with a super-big role in world affairs.)

The point is: there's no doubt this student had been kind of/sort of paying attention in class. He understood there was something interesting and different about private property in Russia, and he was on the right track in trying to talk about it.

If only he hadn't gone for that phrase, "In fact," he might have found his way toward a decent paper.

But a few paragraphs later came "In point of fact"...followed by an assertion that was not quite factual at all.

Then, the conclusion: an argument as to how "these various facts" helped to "explain the fact that..."

Let's not even go there. By that point, facts-wise at least, things had really gone off the rails.

I kept a copy of that paper for several years, but I used it to teach about writing, not about Russian history. It was a great illustration of why you need to be careful with facts; why you need to think about the limits to every fact, the contexts in which they may be more or less true, or the qualifications that can make them more precise and more persuasive. One good rule of thumb is to stop and question things a little whenever you find yourself writing:

The simple fact...

In point of fact...

As a matter of fact...

Or etc. Because, let's be honest, more than anything those phrases act like little flags that the facts may actually be a little wobbly or incomplete.

The essay I graded started with this line somewhere in the first paragraph:

"In fact, Russians never had real experience with private property."

If only the writer had thought a moment about how airtight that "fact" really was, he might have written something more like:

"Private property was not as robust an institution in pre-revolutionary Russia as it was in Western Europe at the time. For instance, peasants traditionally held land through the communal mir..."

And if he'd gone on in that vein, the first grade I ever assigned to a student essay may well have been a very sweet A. Sadly, in fact, it was not.