Just the Facts, Folks

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“Avoid Exaggeration…. When you’re writing for readers who don’t know you well, it’s important to show that you’re reliable and not overly dramatic. Readers have a sense of what the world is like. Exaggerations tend to affect them much the way insults do: they begin to mistrust the writer.”

In some contexts now I can feel a bit silly about having written that advice in Mike Palmquist’s and my new textbook. Academic writing is not one of those contexts. Fields that involve statistics, for instance, have strict rules about what does or doesn’t constitute exaggeration, and researchers are trained to respect them reflexively. They write things like “X intervention led to a 2.5 percent increase in Y, but that result is not statistically significant.” That is, they don’t just present the information they’ve gathered; they also acknowledge its significance. When it doesn’t mean much, they make sure to point it out.

In less quantifiable disciplines, a writer might want to argue, say, that Lyndon Johnson was “the greatest civil-rights advocate of all time,” or she or he might quote an authority as having said that. But academics rarely state such things in passing as though they were settled fact. They know that doing so would undermine their credibility.

Outside academia, obviously the rules against exaggeration fly out the window. All the same, I feel strongly that here too avoiding exaggeration pays off. The speech that the Parkland shootings survivor Emma Gonzalez gave on February 17 at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale is a case in point. The speech was widely described as emotional and powerful. And yet it covered a lot of information, including:

  • The House of Representatives did not observe a moment of silence for the Parkland victims, as is generally done after mass shootings. 
  • “In Florida, to buy a gun you do not need a permit, you do not need a gun license, and once you buy it you do not need to register it. You do not need a permit to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun. You can buy as many guns as you want at one time.”
  • Australia had one mass shooting in 1999, introduced gun safety laws, and hasn’t had one since.
  • “Japan has never had a mass shooting. Canada has had three and the UK had one and they both introduced gun control.”
  • President Trump’s electoral campaign received $30 million from the NRA.
  • If you divide that dollar amount “by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the one and one-half months in 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800.”
  • “President Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with certain mental illnesses.”

Gonzalez presented other things, too, as facts—but those are most of the major ones. Given how prevalent false assertions are, I rooted around online to see if I could find out whether any of them were exaggerations. (Some of the results of my research can be found in the links above.)

There are certainly websites and transcripts and videos that claim Gonzalez was exaggerating or worse. For instance, NRA board member Ted Nugent had this to say on a nationally syndicated radio program after Gonzalez spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., on March 24: “These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.” And after the host showed him clips from the speech, he responded, “The dumbing down of America is manifested in the culture deprivation of our academia that have taught these kids the lies, media that have prodded and encouraged and provided these kids lies.”

All of that’s obviously opinion, not fact. (“The evidence is irrefutable” that Gonzalez and other young activists have no soul?!) Numerous other partisan discreditings of her facts have themselves been discredited—and around it goes. But what I wanted to find out is whether websites that are respected across the political spectrum, such as centrist news and fact-checking sites, “called BS,” to borrow Gonzalez’s memorable phrase, on specific information she had shared.

Politifact reports that the information about gun purchases and permits in Florida “tracks with” material from the NRA itself, but calls the claim “You do not need a permit to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun” “probably the weakest line of the speech.” It explains, “There is no permit available to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun, because concealed carry of those weapons is not allowed.” Snopes.com, another fact-checking site, rates the assertion that Trump repealed the Obama-era regulation only “Mostly true,” inasmuch as it’s a simplification. And that’s about as much truth-stretching in the speech as numerous credible sources seem to have been able to find. Gonzalez’s speech was emotional and powerful because it was factual.

There’s no denying that it’s possible to exaggerate widely and often and still succeed in public life. But if ever there was a teachable moment to show your students how much words can matter—specifically words from young people like them, and specifically accurate words—Emma Gonzalez’s Fort Lauderdale speech would be it.

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff@mac.com.

Image Credit: "How to Spot Fake News" by IFLA on Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

About the Author
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine.