Saturday, August 2, 2008

In Actual Fact, The Fact Of The Matter Is The Fact That

Only ten minutes ago I was immersed in a pleasant book about quilting, until I hit a reading block that propelled me off the bed as if nails had sprung up underneath me. I was in the middle of a pleasant enough sentence soiled by the fact that.

the fact that the fact that the fact that

These hateful three little words are the equivalent of four-letter words vulgarity in writing. Like all forms of vulgarity, the fact that pops up absolutely everywhere. It lurks in the news, it sits in the broadsheets, it nests in otherwise perfectly acceptable blogs, it comes up in craft books, it infects novels, it infiltrates newsletters, it dumbs down reviews, it spits venom in recipe books, it plagues all sorts of writing. And I hate it with a passion I never knew I had.

You will be excused to think that this post may have been thoroughly researched, so that I could prove my point by blasting you with numerous examples I have picked through months worth of research. Not so my dear readers. While it is true that the fact that has perturbed me on many occasions so much so as to think of writing about it, it was only yesterday afternoon that I decided that the time had come.

I sat down in Starbucks post-horsey jaunt, with that satisfactory glow to my mind (and my slightly cracked face) that only a good horse groom in high winds can give. I flapped open a book and before I could finish the caramel macchiato, I came across four the fact that. Disgusted, I ditched the book and moved to a magazine. Within ten pages, I came across another two. When I returned home and scoured the news I found another one. I have just come across a recipe that has one, as does the book I was reading before I sat down to write this. And of course when the writer of the book or article uses the fact that once, make no mistake, s/he will do it again. And again and again. It is the unavoidable plague of pseudo-intellectuals who lace up their sentences with what is the most redundant turn of phrase in existence. I am unfazed by the f-word in print and certainly so by the c-word (Vogue had a fantastic article about it not long ago, I wish it had been my idea). Yet, throw the fact that in what I read and I hit the good writing fan.

On many occasions, it can be lifted out of the sentence. This is when the fact is a parenthetic object (it), that is, it would fit between brackets, and when that becomes a conjunction. See this:

‘I loved the fact that we all agreed’, which should read: ‘I loved it that we all agreed’.

‘I love the fact that the city allows you to walk’, which should read: ‘I love it that the city allows you to walk’.

Just as simple is the straightening of the following crap:

‘He also criticised the fact that the three non-commissioned officers were placed in the dock while their commander was not’, which should read: ‘He also criticised the three non-commissioned officers being placed in the dock while their commander was not'.

Similar in construction is this other abomination:

‘He was aided by the fact that fashion in portraiture and clothing was increasingly informal’, which should read: ‘He was aided by fashion in both portraiture and clothing growing informal’.

I am taking 'increasingly' out of that sentence because it is always better to streamline the message if you can (unless you’re Dickens or Tolkien, in which case you can use three thousand words where really good writers only use three hundred): instead of writing ‘clothing being increasingly informal’, I use ‘growing’ which implies incremental increase, hence making 'increasingly' redundant.

I then found this:

‘I have been surprised by the fact that I haven’t made dozens of friends’.

What’s wrong with: ‘I have been surprised by not having made dozens of friends’?

In some instances, the fact that is a cop-out for those really simple-minded writers who think it presents the only meaningful method to express a slightly more complex sentiment. Listen to this for example:

‘I think about the fact that food is no longer about food in the world’s best restaurants’.

This is not that hard to fix either: ‘It is no longer about food in the world’s best restaurants’. I can take this leap here because, in the context of this book, the writer is writing in first person throughout and does not need to re-iterate about it here with yet another ‘I think’.

'Not to mention the fact that the words had dribbled so far down the napkin they’ve run off onto a soggy coaster'.

This is another blasted favourite, mostly because I abhor 'not to mention', in writing and in speaking as well. If there is no point in mentioning it, then why continue? The above can be salvaged like so: 'And the words had dribbled so far down the napkin anyway that they had run off onto a soggy coaster'.

This next, very painful, stilted example can also be changed into something far more pleasing to the ears and eyes. It simply requires a periphrasis, which is, in simple terms, some shuffling of words, until it reads like decent English:

‘The unique quality of the pictures comes from the fact that, being French, Patrick wasn’t synchopatic’.

Here it goes: ‘The unique quality of the picture is down to Patrick not being synchopatic, as he is French’.

Very simple to salvage is also this pathetic sentence:

‘The fact that you could easily get twelve slices out of this is another reason why it comes in useful when you’ve got people coming for dinner’, which can be turned into: ‘Being able to easily get twelve slices out of this is another reason why it comes in useful when you’ve got people coming for dinner’.

As is often the case, it is good to keep the very best for last. In here, we’re got two the fact that in the same sentence. Beat it if you can, but don't show it to me if you give it a try:

‘I have always been intrigued by the fact that some people send out extremely expensive invitations on thick card with gilt edging to announce the fact that they will be 'at home'’. This is so dumb, it is the easiest of all to fix: ‘I have always been intrigued by some people sending out extremely expensive invitations on thick card with gilt edging in order to announce that they will be 'at home'’.

VoilĂ ! No space in writing for the heinous the fact that. It can always, under all circumstances, be removed and replaced with something far less awful. I know that some will tell me that, hey Steph, it's everywhere, everyone's using it! And you know what? Just because so many are doing crack cocaine doesn't mean you or I should as well.
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