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The Cambridge Factfinder 4th Edition

The Cambridge Factfinder 4th Edition

Author: David Crystal

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


Publish Date: December 4, 2000

ISBN-10: 0521794358

Pages: 912

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

The Cambridge Factfinder contains more facts than any other book of its kind. We also believe it is much easier to use than other such books. What might seem at first the most simple of books – a collection of bits of information for use in the home, at school or in the office – is actually the product of much hard thinking about how best to organize the information, and, indeed, what the nature of this information is.

Something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction; a datum of experience, as opposed to the conclusions which may be based upon it. This definition, one of the longest in the Oxford English Dictionary, gives a hint of the difficulty involved in saying what exactly counts as a ‘fact’ and thus of the difficulties facing any editor who has to decide what should be included in a book of them. At first glance, the answer is obvious: there are facts about objects and animals (what are the characteristics ofX?), people (who is X?), places (where is X?), and times (when did X happen?), and these facts can be numerical (how many X? how often did X happen?), verbal (how to describe X?), and tabular (how to classify X?).

At second glance, the situation becomes more complicated (and more interesting). There are facts about fictions (X in mythology or literature) and fictions about facts (disputes over the longest or largest X). There are situations where we cannot decide whether something is fiction or fact (the changing politics of country X). There are near-facts (estimates ofX), transient facts (world records about X), qualified facts (the majority ofX), arguable facts (the most important X), politically biased facts (the growth or decline ofX), and contrived facts (neat classifications ofX). A factbook must not ignore these awkward and marginal cases, but having included them it must always remember to warn readers if ‘there’s something they should know’ before swallowing a ‘fact’ whole. Examples of this advice are given on p. 42 (about longest rivers) and p. 420 (about saints* days). Many bitter arguments (such as those that arise out of a disputed answer in a quiz game) could be avoided if more attention were paid to this issue. On the other hand, certain notions are not part of a factbook. Definitions of words, for example, really have no place. It is a fact that Memphis and its necropolis is a World Heritage Site (p. 45). However, if you don’t know what a necropolis is you had best look the word up in a dictionary. Nor do explanations of concepts have any place in a factbook. If, to continue the example, you are unclear about who would be buried in a necropolis, you had better look this up in an encyclopedia. A factbook is not intended to do the job of a glossary, a manual, or a textbook.

What is a fact?
What isn’t a fact?
Nor is a fact a single, isolated piece of information. An enquirer may have a single question in mind, and want a single fact for an answer, but any factbook worth its salt should show how this enquiry fits into a broader frame of reference. No fact exists in isolation. Eveiything is part of a pattern. It is therefore important to show the pattern. A factbook should say to a reader: ‘You asked about X, and here’s the answer – but don’t forget there’s also Y and Z, which can help you understand X further. And, while you’re here, have a look at Y and Z anyway, as they’re interesting too.’ A good factbook, once entered, should put questions in perspective, and also be difficult to leave. There should be a strong temptation to stay awhile, and browse. In The Cambridge Factfinder, the organization of information into fields of meaning, sequenced logically, and grouped hierarchically, provides both motivation and means. If the job is done well, answering factual questions proves to be the least trivial of pursuits.

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