There are a number of ways that words can be manipulated to mean more than what the letters spell out.

You can be influenced by clever – and often subtle – use of language

Examples of this include the use of fact vs opinion, omission of necessary information, the use of words with connotations, and bias. Being aware of these manipulations will make you a more discerning buyer, a better manager and a more effective employee.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with assertions or claims, being able to differentiate between the use of fact and opinion is arguably the most important skill to develop when exploring the manipulative use of language.

Understanding fact vs opinion

Today’s TV, radio, and printed media advertisements bombard us constantly with messages filled with testimonies and personal statements as well as newscasts filled with one-sided stories and personal issues.

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We need to be able to review these messages objectively so that we can determine what is fact and what is an opinion.

A fact states something that:

  • Happens. For example, “A lunar eclipse happens when the moon aligns exactly with the earth and sun.”
  • Has happened or is certain to be true. For example, “Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.”
  • Is real or exists. For example, “The sun is a star.”

An opinion states something:

  • Believed to have occurred. For example, “The teacher gave us a pop quiz because she got mad at the class.”
  • Believed to exist. For example, “The bus stop close to my house was built so I wouldn’t miss the bus again.”
  • Believed to be true. For example, “Grandma and Grandpa love me the most.”

Recognising the language of fact vs opinion

A statement using adjectives and/or adverbs with words such as always, never, should, all, none, most, least, greatest, good, better, best, beautiful, pretty, ugly, nice, mean, bad, worse, worst, tasty, tastier and tastiest is most likely to be an opinion because it represents someone’s personal feelings or attitudes instead of presenting a fact that can be verified.

Because statements of fact can be confirmed, they are almost void of descriptive adjectives and adverbs like the words in bold listed above.

Newspaper articles, TV, and radio reports should be factual and answer the questions of how, when, where, and to or with whom something occurred. Journalists and reporters must write news reports without bias and save their opinions for editorials and other columns that allow and encourage the expression of their feelings of approval or disapproval of an event or occurrence.

An effective way to differentiate fact from opinion is to ask questions, to politely probe the assertions you are presented with

Advertisers write advertisements using a mixture of fact and opinion

For example, “Denti-White toothpaste costs less than many other brands of toothpastes, and children love the flavour!” The first half of the statement “Denti-white costs less than many other brands of toothpastes,” can be proved, but “children love the flavour” is strictly an opinion. Not every person will love the taste.

It is not always easy for people to spot a biased advertisement when a mixture of fact and opinion appear in the same statement.

Compare the sentence “You are the best salesperson on the team” with “You sold 10 cars last month, while John sold three”. Facts are based on information that can be checked and proven.

Opinions may sometimes sound like fact, but on further investigation cannot be checked or proven to be true.

Verifying fact vs opinion

An effective way to differentiate fact from opinion is to ask questions, to politely probe the assertions you are presented with. Remember that facts can be proven (i.e. evidenced) and opinions are simply beliefs held by people. Be resilient to the power of strong beliefs, and the opinions of strong-willed people.