Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion Help (page 2)
Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion
What's the difference between fact and opinion, and what does it matter, anyway? It matters a great deal, especially when it comes to reading comprehension.
During your life, you'll be exposed to a wide variety of literature, ranging from analytical articles based on cold hard facts to fictional novels that arise wholly from the author's imagination. However, much of what you read will be a mixture of facts and the author's opinions. Part of becoming a critical reader means realizing that opinions are not evidence; for opinions to be valid, they must be supported by cold, hard facts.
- Facts are
- things known for certain to have happened.
- things known for certain to be true.
- things known for certain to exist.
- Opinions, on the other hand, are
- things believed to have happened.
- things believed to be true.
- things believed to exist.
As you can see, the key difference between fact and opinion lies in the difference between believing and knowing. Opinions may be based on facts, but they are still what we think, not what we know. Opinions are debatable; facts are not.
Using Facts to Support Opinions
Reasonable opinions are those based on fact; and indeed, that is what much of writing is: the writer's opinion (an assertion about his or her subject) supported by facts or other evidence.
Think about the topic sentences you formed after you finished Lesson 2. Perhaps you made an assertion like this:
- James is a terrific boss.
This sentence is a good topic sentence; it's an assertion about the subject, James. And it is also an opinion. It is, after all, debatable; someone could just as easily take the opposite position and say:
- James is a terrible boss.
This is another good topic sentence, and it's another opinion. Now, a good writer will show his or her readers that this opinion is valid by supporting it with facts. For example:
James is a terrific boss. He always asks us how we're doing. He lets us leave early or come in late when we have to take care of our children. He always gives holiday bonuses. And he offers tuition reimbursement for any course, even if it has nothing to do with our positions.
Notice how the topic sentence states an opinion, whereas the rest of the sentences support that opinion with facts about how James treats his employees. That paragraph is much more effective than something like this:
James is a terrible boss. I really don't like him. He just can't get along with people. And he has stupid ideas about politics.
Why is the first paragraph so much better? Because it's not just opinion. It's opinion supported by evidence. The second paragraph is all opinion. Every sentence is debatable; every sentence tells us what the author believes is true, but not what is known to be true. The author of the second paragraph doesn't provide any evidence to support why he or she thinks that James is such a lousy boss. As a result, we're not likely to take his or her opinion very seriously.
In the first paragraph, on the other hand, the writer offers concrete evidence for why he or she believes James is a great boss. After the initial opinion, the writer provides facts—specific things James does (which can be verified by other observers) that make him a good boss. You may still not agree that James is a great boss, but at least you can see exactly why this writer thinks so.
Distinguishing Fact from Opinion
When you read academic materials, very often you will have to distinguish between fact and opinion—between what the writer thinks and how the writer supports what he or she thinks, between what is proven to be true and what needs to be proved.
A good test for whether something is a fact or opinion might be to ask yourself, "Can this statement be debated? Is this known for certain to be true?" If you answer yes to the first question, you have an opinion; if you answer yes to the second, you have a fact.
TIP: Sometimes "facts" are incorrect or skewed because they were obtained from invalid or biased sources. When you are reading a nonfiction text, it's important to note the author's credentials and his or her sources. Use that information to validate the legitimacy of the "facts" being presented.
The ability to differentiate between fact and opinion is a very important skill. Like a detective, you need to know the difference between what people think and what people know, between what people believe to be true and what has been proven to be true. Then you will be able to see whether writers support their opinions, and if they do, how they do it. This will allow you to judge for yourself the validity of those opinions.
TIP: When you are reading a nonfiction text, seek out contradictory statements. They serve as red flags, signaling that what is being presented as "fact" might actually be a half-truth or opinion.
Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion Practice.
More Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Reading Comprehension Strategies Practice Test.
Test your knowledge at Reading Comprehension Final Practice Test.
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