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What's the matter with 'fact of the matter'?

Last week on That's What They Say, we had so much fun talking about "factoids" we thought we'd answer another fact-related question this week.

A couple weeks ago, English professor Anne Curzan gave a talk at Glacier Hills Senior Living Community in Ann Arbor. Following the talk, a woman asked a question  Curzan had never considered.

She wanted to know, "Why is everyone now talking about the fact of the matter? Why can't they just talk about facts?"

Good question. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says "fact of the matter" comes into the language in 1808, so it's clearly not new. It had a surge in popularity in the mid-19th century, when people started using the expression as a way to talk about the truth of whatever it was they were talking about. 

"Fact of the matter" saw a steady increase in use for about 100 years, before leveling off in the 1970s and 1980s. So it's not actually becoming more popular, but it's not getting less popular either.

One thing that Curzan noticed, when she checked the usage databases, is that when we use "fact of the matter," we tend to use it at the beginning of a sentence. There aren't many examples that have it at the end, though you could say something like, "That's the simple fact of the matter."

"For the most part, it's a way we start a sentence, and it's emphatic -- 'the fact of the matter is' or 'let me tell you the truth of this.' When I looked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, [this usage] appeared 1,907 times," Curzan said.

Interestingly, if make you make "fact" plural, the phrase suddenly gets much less popular. Curzan only found 32 examples including, "I would like to know the facts of the matter" and "that doesn't change the facts of the matter."

Have you noticed other non-slang phrases that suddenly seem like they're everywhere? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu, and we'll track down the facts of the matter.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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