Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion Study Guide
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
One of the most important signs of a good reader is the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion. This lesson will show you how facts are different from opinions and why this difference matters.
As you know from your own experience, sometimes it's really important to know when someone is telling you what they think, not what they know. For example, let's say your friend wants you to come over, but you'd planned to work on your book report.
"Don't worry," your friend says. "Mr. Billings is really laid back. He won't care if you hand it in late." You could be in big trouble if you assume that your friend is offering a fact and not just his opinion.
Defining Fact and Opinion
Before we go any further, let's define these two important terms.
- things known for certain to have happened.
- things known for certain to be true.
- things known for certain to exist.
- things believed to have happened.
- things believed to be true.
- things believed to exist.
The key difference between fact and opinion lies in the difference between knowing and believing. Opinions may be based on facts, but they are still what people think and believe, not what they know. Opinions are debatable; two different people could have two different opinions about the matter. Facts, however, are not debatable. Two different people would have a hard time debating a fact. They might not agree on how to interpret the facts, but they would have to agree on the facts themselves.
Consider this example: "Basketball is more exciting than football." This statement is debatable. You could argue that football is more exciting than basketball, or that they're both equally exciting, or even that they're both dreadfully boring. All these statements are opinions. But "Basketball is a team sport" is not debatable; it's impossible to disagree with this statement. It's something known to be true. Thus, it's a fact.
A good test for whether something is fact or opinion, then, is to ask yourself two questions:
- Can this statement be debated?
- Is this something known to be true?
If you can answer "Yes" to the first question, it's probably an opinion. If you can answer "Yes" to the second question, it's probably a fact. For example, look at the following sentence:
Our school's policy is that you must have a C average in order to participate in school sports.
Does this topic sentence express a fact or an opinion? Well, is it debatable? Can someone disagree? Probably not. It's a matter of fact, something that could be proven by a quick visit to the principal or the athletic department. On the other hand, look at the following claim. (Read it carefully; it's different from the previous example though it looks the same.)
Our school should have a policy that you must have at least a C average to participate in school sports.
Now, is this something known to be true, or is this something debatable? Clearly, different people can have different opinions on this issue. It's an opinion.
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