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Verbal Energy

The unlovely ‘fact that’ and its redundant kin

The Monitor’s language columnist considers whether some ‘facts’ are really necessary.

By Ruth Walker / December 29, 2009



A reader has written in to invite attention to usages such as “I love that he’s included a picture of the barn where he has his studio on his new business cards,” or “I hate that I’m always so behind like this.”

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So what’s the offending construction here? you may be asking. It’s the idea of a noun clause (“that he’s included a picture,” etc.) as the direct object of a verb (“love”). This is right where many of us (right-thinking people everywhere, as my reader would have it, I suspect) would have inserted “the fact” – “I love the fact that he’s included a picture....”

Alternatives would be “the way,” as in, “I love the way he’s included a picture,” or “how,” as in “I hate how I’m always so behind.”

These more traditional usages don’t qualify yet as “quaint.” But I think my correspondent is on to something. The bare noun clause nailed directly to the verb is one of those subtleties of expression that mark an utterance of our time.

Now that you’ve read about it, you’ll hear it everywhere. Some real-life examples:

Here’s Ronald Brownstein in the October issue of The Atlantic, writing about the octogenarian energy-conservation guru Art Rosenfeld: “Former Vice President Al Gore, for one, described him to me as ‘a national resource. He’s quite a thinker. I like him a lot.’ Then Gore laughed. ‘I also like that he starts to get more innovative as he gets older.’”

Rihanna, the pop star, had a big hit a couple of years ago called “Hate That I Love You.”

A scholarly journal article had a not quite hummable title: “‘I like that He Always Shows Who He Is’: The Perceptions and Experiences of Siblings with a Brother with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Here the relevant phrase is in quotation marks, presumably a sign that someone was trying to ease the reader’s way with a little colloquialism.

Is there something missing in this “love that/hate that” construction?

There’s nothing wrong with a dependent clause standing alone as the subject of a sentence. Here, for example, is Copyediting editor Wendalyn Nichols, trying to help her fellow beings through the spelling confusion of principle/principal:

“I’ve learned that I cannot expect my child’s teachers to spell well. (That one of them cheerfully refuses to engage in self-flagellation over this moral failing still irks me, though.)”

We don’t miss “the fact” in a sentence such as, “He saw that he could not continue to work such long hours.” We don’t even need the “that.”

So are words like “the way” or “the fact” just filler? Sometimes “the fact that” does help with parallelism in a sentence: “Three things will focus his attention on this matter: the constituent mail, the criticism from the press, and the fact that there’s an election in two months.”

But years ago one of my mentors told me that “the fact that” should be challenged: Is it really needed?

H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage notes how many “fact” idioms English has. His cross-reference, “See MEANINGLESS WORDS,” says it all.

Language is a continuous process of erosion here, and building up there. Some words fall out, and other words get added, as intensifiers or qualifiers.

For the moment, I’m going to suspend judgment. I love that humanity sometimes drops a needless word.

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