The notes posted here don’t concern small points. They concern one large point: seeing the English language as a single fabric whose threads are inseparable from one another. And so these notes don’t present writing as a matter of obeying one rule after another. Rather, writing consists of a single action: thinking about how aspects of prose fit together to form a working system.

For instance, the use of the word factoid may at first seem an isolated question of little consequence. But it actually involves giving thought to the whole fabric of language.

As coined, factoid meant an item of information that is not (or not necessarily) true but seems true. Later the word came also to mean an item of information that is true but trivial. The two senses are largely opposites. In the first, the item’s falsity is essential (or, at least, its truth is not assumed). The second assumes that the item is true.

So how does a reflective writer use the word? The answer lies in giving a moment’s thought to how the suffix -oid runs like a thread through the language and touches many words. Such a consideration finds that -oid generally means “resembling.” A humanoid being is not a human being: it’s another kind of being and merely seems human. An android is not a man (andro-, in Greek) but is manlike. An asteroid is not a star (astēr, in Greek), but it resembles one. A cuboid shape is “approximately cubical” (“Cuboid,” def. 1).

There’s a profound difference between a human being and a being that, though humanlike, is not human. English can convey that difference efficiently with a suffix, but the suffix holds its power only if used consistently.

Writers who use factoid in a sense contrary to this thread of meaning—to mean a kind of fact—don’t violate a law of nature. Nor do they violate a grammarian’s rule, because there are no rules: there are only the interrelations of a system. But such writers neglect to give thought to those interrelations.

Work Cited

“Cuboid, Adj.Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Photo of Eric Wirth

Eric Wirth

Until his retirement in 2016, Eric Wirth was the head of editorial services at the MLA, where for twenty-seven years he prepared scholarly writing for publication. Previously, he produced reference books at other publishers, after studying French literature in college.