And That’s a Fact!

In second grade, I was a skinny lad, with shockingly blond hair, wearing my trademark sweatpants with American flag patches on both knees. We were learning about the difference between facts and opinions. Mrs. Hunter would present a sentence like, “Johnny is walking to the store,” and we would identify it as a statement of fact. Or, “Johnny is nice,” and we’d say that’s an opinion. Then she’d throw in, “Mrs. Hunter is the best teacher ever,” and we—sycophants that we were—would say, “That’s a fact!” We had a good laugh. But then came the trouble.

“How about, ‘Betty thinks clowns are funny’?” asked Mrs. Hunter.

My knee-jerk classmates were quick to identify it as an opinion, and Mrs. Hunter confirmed it.

“But wait,” I said, crinkling my forehead in thought. “That’s a fact, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s an opinion,” Mrs. Hunter explained, “because not everyone agrees clowns are funny.”

“Yes,” I said, “but that was not the statement. The statement was, Betty thinks they are. We are supposing that a fact is an objective statement of actuality, while an opinion is a subjective statement of judgement. In this case, when we we have an objective statement about a subject’s judgement, the only way to confirm its veracity is by the word of the subject. If Betty says she thinks clowns are funny, then we have to take her word for it and allow that ‘Betty thinks clowns are funny’ is indeed a fact. If we want to be strict about it, we can allow for dishonesty and the statement is at best indeterminate. But any time the subject of the sentence is the one making the judgement, it cannot be an opinion. This also applies to personal statements such as ‘I like turtles’. Either that statement is a fact or it is a lie. It cannot be an opinion. ‘Turtles are cool’ is an opinion, because the subject, ‘turtles’, are not making the judgement of ‘cool’. See?”

Mrs. Hunter was silent for a moment. “Just mark it as ‘opinion’, OK? It’s time for recess.”