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This is a usage question. Seriously.

Folks use both words with great confidence, which leads me to believe they know what they're talking about.

We are assured that on EL&U questions must not be posted whose answers can only be opinion-based. And - if your answer isn't factual, it'll be closed immediately. Yes. We know the drill.

So it came to me as a shock today when someone with a rep of more than 50K (a fellow whom I like, incidentally) began answering a question with "I think ..."

Personally I have nothing against it. Opinions are superior to facts - in Decartes' ... opinion ... anyway. The word opinion is a derivative of the word opine, which means "to think" in Latin. Had Decartes thought ... damn it ! ... had he thought it was the other way around, he would have said "I've got some facts here, therefore ..." But he didn't.

According to the standard definition, a fact is something that can be proven right. (They usually leave it at that; however, an honest person should hasten to add " ... or wrong").

An opinion is something that cannot be proven right, nor wrong for that matter.

Or so they say.

A long, long time ago scientists took it as a matter of course that the Earth was the center of the Universe. To them and their groupies this was a fact. At the same time other scientists protested that the Sun, and not the Earth, was in the center, or slightly off-center. The two schools of thought continued to prove their rivals wrong and their own theory right. This went on for many centuries. Geocentric, heliocentric.

(There was, to be sure, Nicholas of Cusa, who explained that the Universe as we know it cannot have a geometrical center, but he was pointedly ignored).

Then, many centuries later, someone demonstrated, or thought he did, that neither the Sun nor the Earth were in the middle. Today's scientists believe in the almighty singularity that appeared out of nowhere and detonated itself with such vim and vigor that space, time, matter and energy suddenly appeared and began rapidly to expand in all directions centerlessly. That is now a fact, while the older ideas are no longer viewed as facts: they're outdated opinions. (Facts cannot be outdated: facts are forever, as Cleopatra used to say).

"What is the source of this?" demands the skeptical Mr. X squeamishly when he encounters information that doesn't quite fit into his well-adjusted outlook.

The ancient Romans thought the story of Troy was fiction. Troy? Fiction. Of course. It's a fact. Only ignorant people believe it might be true.

Folks continued to hold this ... op ... whoa. Folks continued to view the fictional nature of Troy as a fact until someone somewhere developed a different ... opinion ... damn it ... Eventually, an amateur named Schliemann dug up something that definitely wasn't Troy. Then, reluctantly, some folks began to agree that it was ... well ... kind of ... Troy.

Now we know for a fact that the Trojan War took place sometime in the 12th Century B.C. Look it up if you don't believe me. What's my source? I've got many. Wikipedia is one. Britannica Encyclopedia is another. There are countless books and essays.

Yes, but all those encyclopedia entries, all those textbook chapters - they didn't just magically appear, did they? No. They were written by, well, people. Reputable and scholarly, but still human. What was their source? Evidence? What evidence? Homer and Schliemann?

But no one questions Troy anymore. There's just no need. Too many entries. Too many books, well-indexed and cross-referenced. Consensus. Part of the paradigm.

But. Someone was first. The pioneer. The trailblazer. The idea's only champion at the time. At some point in the past that someone said, "Homer's account was based on actual historical events."

They called him a moron and told him to keep his uninteresting opinions to himself. Until ...

As it turns out, a fact is an opinion agreed on by many. Evidence or no evidence. An opinion is a unit of information someone believes in. A fact is a unit of information many reputable people believe in.

When you're stating a fact, it does help if your ... uh ... "source" ... is "reputable," i.e. the person whose essay or book you're so cavalierly alluding to is properly certified (has the stamp of approval, a.k.a. "the Sign of the Beast").

Am I right? ...

Now comes the comical part. I'm pretty sure a whole bunch of folks will want to close this question because "it is primarily opinion-based." Which is to say that, while we only consider facts, and never opinions, here on EL&U, what a fact or an opinion actually is is a matter of opinion, not fact.

Or not.

If not, please give me your definition of those two words.

migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jan 29 '16 at 9:06

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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    Related, possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/267850/… – user66974 Jan 28 '16 at 10:19
  • "I don't think I understand what you are asking" is an opinion. You received two close-votes as unclear what you are asking is a fact. (I am not the close-voter). – user140086 Jan 28 '16 at 10:19
  • As it happens, I had my wrist slapped on this site recently, for beginning an answer with "I think ..." [no, I'm not the one with a 50K reputation]. My admonisher was correct according to the rules, but I was left thinking that what I meant was "Based on what I know of grammar, my judgment is that ...", which isn't exactly the same as opinion. – David Garner Jan 28 '16 at 10:24
  • RE: please give me your definition of those two words - I wouldn't vote to close this because it's "primarily opinion-based," but I might vote to close this because it "entirely answerable with a dictionary." ;-) I can also see where one might vote to close it because it's a rant disguised as a question (that "So it came to me as a shock today" part strikes me as more like an unnecessary taunt at the community than the crux of a thoughtful discourse). – J.R. Jan 28 '16 at 10:39
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    What's the difference between this post and a rant? – NVZ Jan 28 '16 at 10:47
  • @NVZ: In whose opinion and by whose standards? – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 10:48
  • @Rathony: I'm merely a bit confused that folks don't find it comical when they close questions or delete answers because based on their opinions it is opinion-based. – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 10:50
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    That's why 5 votes are required to close any question and I think it needs more votes to delete an answer (depending on your rep points). I sometimes use I think when I give my opinion about which dictionary has a better definition, or which example sentence makes more sense, and so on. I don't think using I think is entirely wrong. Closing questions and deleting low-quality-answers are different issues and they should not be considered comical. – user140086 Jan 28 '16 at 10:58
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    @Rathony: I don't think stating an opinion, if it is well-argued, is wrong either. What are facts but opinions in disguise. – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 11:05
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    I think this would be better on philosophy.SE or meta.elu.SE – Mitch Jan 28 '16 at 13:03
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    @Rathony, agreed. In much the same way that a referee interprets the rules of a game, even a high-reputation expert might reasonably say, "I think [on the basis of my decades of experience] that ..." – David Garner Jan 28 '16 at 14:30
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    If you've voted to close this question because it's not clear to you how to treat this question as a matter of English usage, then it's clear that you ought not be voting to close this question. And thanks to tim-o-matic for adding the word theory to the discussion. – deadrat Jan 28 '16 at 18:54
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    @deadrat +1. I voted to reopen this question. When it is reopened, I will vote for this question to migrate to Meta. I feel this question is related with ELU. – user140086 Jan 28 '16 at 19:17
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    @Rathony As with much of Ricky's performance art, this question is a blend of posturing, philosophy (better suited to philosophy.SE or Meta), and serious inquiry. It should be possible to discuss what the words fact and opinion mean while ignoring the first two parts of the admixture. But not with the close-happy posse doing its thing to protect the integrity of the forum. Which is why we can't have nice things. – deadrat Jan 28 '16 at 19:35
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    I'm finding it very hard to determine what the question is here. Can you clarify at the end of your OP? – Mitch Jan 29 '16 at 16:00
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From the following snippets of your question:

  • We are assured that on EL&U questions must not be posted whose answers can only be opinion-based;
  • it came to me as a shock today when someone with a rep of more than 50K ... began answering a question with "I think ..."; and
  • while we only consider facts, and never opinions, here on EL&U, what a fact or an opinion actually is is a matter of opinion, not fact.

I take it that you're questioning the difference between fact and opinion in the context of EL&U.

Since subjective questions are not ruled out completely, it is safe to say that answers need not be restricted to those that are lab-provable or maths-derived.

From the same link, the primary qualification is:

  • insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references

so we should consider the terms fact and opinion in relation to EL&U posts to be synonyms of substantiated posts and unsubstantiated posts.

It's interesting to note that some unsubstantiated answers are tolerated while others aren't. Personal experience is certainly a source of substantiation, but it can also be really hard for others to verify, particularly posts that reduce to 'Trust me, I know what I'm talking about'. As you point out, there is a whole spectrum between fact and bare opinion, so where should the line be drawn? To answer this, we need to return to the purpose of this site.

The stated aim is to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage. The site goes on to say how questions should be answered:

Read the question carefully. What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, but do try to mention any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better.

In other words, it's not whether an answer is categorised as opinion or fact. Rather, the standard is that the answer has to be useful. Lone opinions that have no supporting documentation and no logical argument fail this standard, but opinions that are supported should be well received.

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    Not bad, actually. +1. However, if this were true (and I'm not saying it isn't), it would behoove the powers-that-be to change the wording from "primarily opinion-based," which is moronic and insulting, to "of highly questionable utility." – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 11:15
  • That's all just opinion. – Hot Licks Jan 28 '16 at 13:59
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    @HotLicks Ah, but it's supported opinion :) . – Lawrence Jan 28 '16 at 14:04
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    @Ricky "Of highly questionable utility" would actually be a useful vote-to-close reason. That VTC reason might be dismissed as just opinion, but it is arguably a better match for the description associated with the "primarily opinion-based" VTC reason. – Lawrence Jan 28 '16 at 15:51
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    Of "highly questionable utility" was once called on EL&U (before I joined) not constructive: As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion – Mari-Lou A Jan 28 '16 at 18:03
  • Then it was changed into closed as not a real question : It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. But nobody liked that, so it was changed again – Mari-Lou A Jan 28 '16 at 18:04
  • and the closure vote was renamed too localized: This question is unlikely to help any future visitors; it is only relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet. – Mari-Lou A Jan 28 '16 at 18:09
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    @Ricky And so we come to primarily opinion-based which is easily comprehensible. But it's a well known fact, you can't please all the folks all the time. So I am positive that highly questionable utility will be contested and argued that it is POB sugar-coated. And all this is my personal opinion; however, it is also based on and supported by so-called "facts". – Mari-Lou A Jan 28 '16 at 18:12
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    @Mari-LouA I think this question is helpful to ELU in that it raises a fundamental issue that is closely related with ELU and as a matter of fact, we all are not free from criticism that we are not consistent enough in handling POB questions, let alone duplicate questions, one-liner answer issue. We can't tell new users to include reference and link when high-rep users are blatantly ignoring the guidelines on ELU. It has reached a tipping point. – user140086 Jan 28 '16 at 19:24
  • @Mari-LouA Thanks for the history. It shows at least that the people who look after the site are responsive to feedback. The closed as not a real question reason looks like it's decomposed into the current unclear what you're asking and too broad VTC reasons. On a more pragmatic level, using POB as the VTC label for LQQ can be a deterrent (to VTC the LQQ) when the other VTC reasons don't fit and the question is not primarily opinion-based. – Lawrence Jan 29 '16 at 0:14
  • Of the four close reasons that Mari-LouA identifies, I think "too localized"—with its attendant explanation—does the best job of pointing out why instances of a certain class of questions (including absurdly precise single-word requests and proofreading requests of any kind) are likely not to be useful for anyone other than the poster. More than any of the other three close reasons she cites, "too localized" emphasizes the shortcomings of the closed question with regard to future and general usefulness. I wonder why that wording fell out of favor. – Sven Yargs Jan 29 '16 at 17:55
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A long, long time ago scientists took it as a matter of course that the Earth was the center of the Universe. To them and their groupies this was a fact. At the same time other scientists protested that the Sun, and not the Earth, was in the center, or slightly off-center. The two schools of thought continued to prove their rivals wrong and their own theory right. This went on for many centuries. Geocentric, heliocentric.

(There was, to be sure, Nicholas of Cusa, who explained that the Universe as we know it cannot have a geometrical center, but he was pointedly ignored).

Then, many centuries later, someone demonstrated, or thought he did, that neither the Sun nor the Earth were in the middle. Today's scientists believe in the almighty singularity that appeared out of nowhere and detonated itself with such vim and vigor that space, time, matter and energy suddenly appeared and began rapidly to expand in all directions centerlessly. That is now a fact, while the older ideas are no longer viewed as facts: they're outdated opinions.

This what you describe here are neither facts, nor opinions but theories.

  • Oh, good. Then the wording should be changed from "primarily opinion-based" to "we don't deal in theories, just facts." – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 21:04
2

BBC has this article on Fact or Opinion that explains the difference very well and I find it useful in explaining what primarily-opinion-based means on ELU:

A fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence, e.g. In 2010, Lionel Messi was named FIFA World Footballer of The Year. We can check these details by looking at FIFA records. Facts are often used in conjunction with research and study...

An opinion is based on a belief or view. It is not based on evidence that can be checked e.g. Wayne Rooney is the best football player in the EPL. Some people might think there are other players in the EPL who are better than Wayne Rooney...

Regarding questions that can generate primarily-opinion-based (POB) answers, I think it is a good guideline to close those questions as they could be only useful to the OP him/herself and it might not be a good reference to current and future readers. I believe the motto on Stack Exchange in relation to asking questions is "Ask questions that can benefit others and don't ask questions that can benefit only yourself." Majority of POB questions are beneficial only to the OP and it is not good for the community. Some of questions closed as POB are:

  1. Punctuation questions: There is no unified rule on punctuation in English, so many of them could generate only POB answers depending on posters' style and preference (style book).

  2. Why is it? or Which is better (or best)? type of questions: It doesn't work very well on ELU. However, some of them are well-received when users could find them answerable with reference and research.

  3. What do you think about it? type of question. Unless they are about regional differences or nuances, they are not well-received.

As I commented above, 5 votes are required to close any question and I believe it needs more than 5 votes to delete an answer depending on your rep points (I can only recommend deletion at my reputation). Opinions could be different, but facts could not. Many grammatical points are opinion-based and sometimes different depending on authors, but they can be reasonably understood by English speakers. There is a grey area between an opinion and a fact. But the important thing is the guidelines of ELU doesn't encourage a question that could generate only POB answers.

I think the linked questions on Meta, What the “primarily opinion-based” close reason is for, Why is question 146045 opinion-based? and What is wrong with “Opinion-Based”? would be interesting for you. There are many more if you use the search.

I agree with @Lawrence. Answers should be as correct—hopefully more fact-based than opinion-based—and useful as possible to current and future users.

  • Ah, yes, the BBC, that bastion of good sense and unbiased reporting. Strictly speaking, you have no way of verifying that the FIFA records have not been falsified, and no way of proving conclusively that Lionel Messi even exists. It's all conjecture. You believe he exists. You also believe that Antarctica exists, even though you've never been there. You also believe that Hokusai lived during the Edo period (you weren't there); that Marco Polo hobnobbed with the Chinese Emperor (you've met neither of them); that Terrence was an emancipated slave who wrote plays (you have no evidence (tbc) – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 21:15
  • ...that those plays weren't faked by some German joker less than a hundred years ago; that the pyramids were built by whom they were built when they were built; and that the Marathon is named after ... and so forth. – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 21:17
  • Opinions and/or views don't just magically appear in one's imagination. They are the result of experience, and experience is based on what we call facts. – Ricky Jan 28 '16 at 21:19
  • What if you believe you experienced something even though you experienced it in a dream. All historical facts are false based on your comments. The U.S. never got independent from the U.K and it might still be ruled by the U.K. Obama is not a citizen. Trump works for the Russian government. They are all called conspiracies or sometimes dreams. I think the above comment is right. We are talking about philosophy.:-) – user140086 Jan 29 '16 at 4:57
  • What if you believe you experienced something even though you experienced it in a dream. I've read Confucius too, you know. I was going to post my own answer before the merry gang closed my question. It's all a matter of degrees. – Ricky Jan 29 '16 at 5:02
  • @Ricky I voted to reopen it and it worked. But I voted to get it migrated to Meta. You can write your own answer. – user140086 Jan 29 '16 at 5:32
  • What use would it be to anybody on Meta? The one thing I was actually perfectly serious about when I was posting it was that it is a usage question. As in "the English Language & Usage." I dislike philosophy as a scientific discipline. And I really do wish folks would make up their minds what they mean b "fact" and "opinion." – Ricky Jan 29 '16 at 5:40
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    @Ricky To be honest with you, I don't fully understand your intention, If you are raising the issue about ELU not treating the POB questions fairly like this one, Opposite of smartwatch, it belongs to Meta. If you are asking about the difference and their usage, I think it is better to edit your question. It is entirely up to you. – user140086 Jan 29 '16 at 5:59
  • Look, I know what those two mean. If, however, I explained my take on it to people, there isn't the slightest doubt in my mind they'd start browbeating me with "It's your opinion!". Thus the question is my quixotic quest to find out what the hell they really mean when they say "fact" or "opinion," and maybe to have them re-evaluate their ideas on the subject. Let me reiterate: this is a usage question if ever there was one, and as such it can only be useful here, not on Meta, and certainly not on Philosophy or Physics - forums where fanatics gather to worship their respective deities. – Ricky Jan 29 '16 at 6:12
  • I have some opinions regarding your three categories of “primarily opinion based” questions. 1. Punctuation questions are matters of style or convention (as orthography questions are) and critics are correct (I think) to be skeptical of answers based on advice from a single style guide. But posters often want to know what their punctuation options are, and a survey of multiple style guides can offer valuable information on this point, such as whether the guides generally agree on an issue, are all over the place, or perhaps tend to vary by region. I think such answers can be quite useful. – Sven Yargs Jan 29 '16 at 18:42
  • 2(a). A “Why is it?” question that produces answer such as “No one knows” or “That’s just the way it happened” isn’t very satisfying—but it may be the most accurate answer, and if it is supported by a thorough presentation of relevant data, it can be quite illuminating. To me the biggest hazards with “Why is it?” questions are that (1) the poster may be asking a question that is too broad or nebulous to permit a serious and suitably detailed answer in the space available, and (2) some answerers will take the question as an invitation to speculate without bothering to offer any support. – Sven Yargs Jan 29 '16 at 18:43
  • 2(b). “Which is better?” questions are useless if they amount to requests to choose between two arbitrarily contrived options—and often, both of the options on offer are lousy. In that case, in effect, the poster is submitting a request for proofreading, framed as an either/or decision. On the other hand, a question about the relative fitness of two (or more) terms or idioms for a particular area of application may be answerable in a way that is both defensible and useful for readers other than the poster—making both the question and the answer legitimate contributions to EL&U. – Sven Yargs Jan 29 '16 at 18:44
  • 3. “What do you think about X?” questions are useless if they are merely soliciting unsupported opinions—as is often the case. But here, too, there are exceptions, usually involving a serious question that is separable from the infelicitous “What do you think?” presentation of it. My point is that even categories of questions that raise immediate suspicion of being “primarily opinion based” can encompass very worthwhile individual questions—and if that’s the case, we should be reluctant to pull the plug on a question merely because it can be fit into such a category. – Sven Yargs Jan 29 '16 at 18:44
  • @Rathony How come this answer from 2016 is in your name when your new account is just around 2 months old? – NVZ Oct 29 '17 at 20:03
  • @NVZ I think it is just some kind of bug or mal-functioning of this site. Hmm.... I don't even remember I ever posted this answer. Anyway, it was migrated to Meta and I think it has something to do with it. – user253042 Oct 30 '17 at 17:00

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