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“It turns out” (jsomers.net)
257 points by jsomers on March 3, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

Douglas Adams summed it up nicely in The Salmon of Doubt:

"Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression 'it turns out' to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succinct, and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statements without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It's great. It’s hugely better than its predecessors 'I read somewhere that...' or the craven 'they say that...' because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it's research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight."

The other phrases put the emphasis on some particular unnamed authority that you read or heard. "It turns out" puts the emphasis on the "it" -- on existence, reality, or fact. It makes it sound as though "the real" is your authority -- that you drilled all the way down, and found the particular facts were thus-and-such.

When the phrase is used in everyday speech, in my experience, it's usually true. I went to the local grocer and "it turns out" (meaning, I checked and I asked and) they don't carry such-and-such. That's what makes it such a powerful device: there's implicit trust when someone claims to have done the research.

But it's a two-edged sword. If you make a habit of abusing the phrase, and it turns out you're demonstrably wrong on occasion, opponents will begin to view the phrase with extra suspicion, and hammer you on not providing the actual "it" that turns out.

Without using a conjugation of "to be," the phrase manages to do everything E-prime sets out to avoid by banning that verb. I think this is the most egregious specific failure I've noticed so far from E-prime.

> But it's a two-edged sword

I second that. Use this kind of speak with people that are aware of rhetoric, neuro-linguistic programming or non-violent-communication (for instance) and you will shoot you in the foot deep.

Wow, it's interesting to see how people in different fields make use of this term. In medicine, when I say "it turns out," I am often conceding that I just discovered an obvious connection that I should have discovered days earlier:

* "It turns out that our patient with salmonella has a pet lizard."

On the other hand, when I am trying to convey my knowledge in, say, human genetics in a humble fashion and convey to the reader that it's OK that they didn't know what I'm about to say, I'll also use "it turns out:"

* "It turns out that every gene found to cause Mendelian lipid disorders also has common variants discovered by genome-wide association studies."

In the pet-lizard case, aren't you using the phrase with mild irony? Something like, "After painstaking analysis coupled with a few brilliant flashes of insight, I managed to deduce this totally obvious fact"?

Sometimes (often, even)! But with that particular example, it's actually more like, "I didn't ask the questions that many second-year medical students might ask after finding out a patient had salmonella."

Loved this post. The foibles of rhetoric and language "hacks" fascinate me. I'd subscribe to a blog that posted stuff like this regularly - not least because I'd like to learn similar rhetorical "tricks." Anyone know of any (or even books)?

Not necessarily "hacks" per se, but Language Log is quite good: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

William Safire's weekly "On Language" piece in the Sunday New York Times did this type of thing for decades and was required reading in my English classes. Sadly he passed on recently but you should be able to find stuff like this in his books or in his articles in the NYT Archive.

I think Safire would probably have suggested that you used "died" rather than "passed on". No?

He would also have suggested a comma after "sadly," so that it's obvious that it's the writer's comment, rather than a modifier on the way Safire died.

You have to read this (I read the french version, I hope the english one is close):

A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense


I occasionally return to this and browse around: http://www.nt.armstrong.edu/terms.htm

The examples are great.

I don't think using the phrase "it turns out" is intrinsically deceptive. Pragmatically it's just declarative sentence + expression of surprise.

I'd be interested to see a list of all the 46 passages though. I wonder if there are patterns.

As another poster alluded to, a practitioner of NLP would call this a "pattern interrupt".

  1) Build up an argument almost to a crescendo  
  2) Pattern interrupt ("it turns out")  
  3) New argument
A practitioner of NLP would say that this weakens the original argument because it puts an interruption between the stimulus and the response.

There is a shock to the system followed by the new argument that you would like the listener to adhere to. The shock makes the listener more suggestible.

That's the theory, anyway. The debate however is very controversial.

It tu... I mean, I suspect that it's ability to 'deceive' correlates strongly with how much you trust the author on that subject in the first place.

If someone tell me "turns out, the astrologers have been right all along!" ... that's not going to sway me unless they're sitting in front of a library of relevant peer reviewed evidence, and can guess which irrational number I'm thinking of.

That's because critical thinking is an entirely different activity from looking for key phrases. :)

I think I get it. In lieu of thinking, people use qualifiers as metadata for their belief filter that says how much belief they should assign to the proposition.

So if you qualify a proposition with "it turns out", that tells the filter that you should probably believe it. Maybe it triggers an assumption like "there is research backing this up."

Notice it sounds funny to say "It turns out that you're a dumbass," as the filter also flags boorish stuff and so it gets mixed signals there.

And it seems deceptive when you state contentious things this way, it's like you're trying to slip stuff past the filter. Unqualified declarative sentences generally seem to trigger this, people always accuse me of "stating my opinions as if they were facts" === "Flag contentious stuff for me so I don't have to think."

"... I'd be interested to see a list of all the 46 passages though ..."

There is more than 46 (725) ~ http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fpaulgraha... If there is a pattern, could it be emerging from "asking questions", thinking, then finding non-obvious or surprising results? Reading through the authors site I found this gem also another explanation.

"... If one is convinced that mind is a computer program, or at least if one thinks of that as a fruitful metaphor, it may be helpful to think about these “thought-generating phrases” as function calls. They are like little labels that execute a useful module, or packaged set of computational instructions. And the point is, just having a label makes it easier to find the code, and therefore more likely that you’ll execute it. Which is exactly what you want if the code is worth calling. ..." ~ http://jsomers.net/blog/generating-thoughts

It quite possible the phrase, "it turns out" is also a thought generating phrase.

Google may claim to find hundreds of hits but if you click through to page 3, it turns out there are only 22.

"... it turns out there are only 22 ..."

Yes, you are right. I missed that even after click through. Do you have any idea for the miss reported hits?

I agree, and so I collected most of them. I had a count of 36 just using the links on your essay page.

For any interested, I just submitted it to HN here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1163918

"I'd be interested to see a list of all the 46 passages though." -- the author links to http://www.google.com/search?q=site:paulgraham.com+%22turns+... which should allow you to see the words in a limited context

I think he wasn't calling the phrase itself deceptive. I think he's saying that you use it in an undisciplined way. From the final paragraph:

[the phrase is] useful in circumstances where you don’t have any substantive path from X to Y.

Nothing personal, but I think he's onto something. Especially if you take a more generous outlook and expand it to "circumstances where you don't demonstrate any substantive path from X to Y." (Even if somebody fails to demonstrate a substantive path, the path might still exist.)

Re: patterns, there was a blogger who did some kind of screen-scraping, machine learning, NLP analysis of my blog and claimed their analysis proved I was really a bot. I would take that kind of thing with a grain of salt.

I think that it serves to make reading an essay more fluid, as you can crop a lot of unnecessary information this way. If every "it turns out" was to follow the path that came to the conclusion, then there'd be a lot of extra detail that would divert the reader from the intended direction, without providing necessary information.

And if the exact path is illuminating in some way, but distracting from the original intent, then it would serve to put the explanation in a footnote.

Using the word "is" is troublesome. It spares the writer of any need to explain his/her authority in making such a statement. eg "This article is not useful."

Your statement asserts fact! Have you read about E Prime?


How unfortunate that you couldn't avoid the troublesome word yourself when identifying its failings.

Besides, the underlying problem has more to do with the verb "to be" (from which "is" conjugates) and the assumption of universal identity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime

Great article on a pet hate of mine.

"It turns out" is often used in mathematics lectures, when the lecturer is trying to keep things relatively informal and is avoiding proving results. Blind assertions have no place in mathematics - it's much better to provide an intuitive explanation in the spirit of the proof.

Sometimes the proof isn't intuitive. Sometimes "it turns out" that if you just crank through this ugly mess of symbols, you get out this result. This is more common on the applied side of mathematics than on the pure side, but I've seen it in both.

Sure, rigorous proofs are often obtained by "proceeding formally", but there's usually (not always, granted) some more intuitive reason as to why something should be the case, otherwise nobody would have tried to prove them in the first place.

Although some proofs can accumulate cruft.

E.g. there was a small and nice intuitive prove of a reasonable theorem in the first place, but scores of people found ways to generalize it, and in the end you have a mess of symbols proving a hopelessly general lemma.

Sometimes even an “intuitively hand-waved” proof substitute, it turns out, is well beyond the scope of the course.

(Then again, I’ve had uncommonly thorough math courses, and would likely share your frustration.)

otherwise nobody would have tried to prove them in the first place.

Not really. Sometimes someone sees a bunch of examples and wonders if there is a generalization/theorem. So they set out to prove it and 3 pages of symbol manipulation later you have a proof.

It's one of several intros that work in a cute way now that we have status update habits (twitter and facebook):

  "it turns out..."
I caught myself using these a lot, and it seemed like every time I used them, I was trying to be cute. Now they are banned.

The author conflates usage in situations where conclusions are certain ("It turns out Fermat's Last Theorem is false." * ) with ones that merely express the author's opinion or conclusion: "After a life long quest for the perfect smoked meat, it turns out I hate pastrami." In the latter case the author is only telling you the conclusion he's reached, not attempting to convince you of its truth.

* Yes, this sentence is false.

I would trust the author's judgement in matters such as "I hate pastrami". If (s)he had said "... it turns out all pastrami is horrible" I think you would have a stronger case.

I'm at least glad the title wasn't "It turns out considered harmful", which would probably have crashed people's parsers for a while. :)

"to say that someone uses the phrase particularly well is really just an underhanded way of saying that they’re particularly good at being lazy"

Larry Wall counts laziness as one of the key "great virtues of a programmer" http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?LazinessImpatienceHubris

That would be a different kind of laziness. In one case you're looking at someone, that given a task, actively searches for a way to accomplish it optimally. In the other, it turns out, you're looking at someone completely going around the task, redefining it.

The result is not the same. But if it is interchangeable, that makes for a useful trait indeed. We call it «hacking».

Human languages (un)fortunately cannot be parsed unambiguously. I think most readers know a difference between a piece of writing written for entertainment and one they can use to make substantiated scientific claims.

Also, I would not dismiss personal experiences. Turns out they are what life is made of ;)

I don't understand the criticism here. "It turns out that X" is just another way of asserting that "X" is true. And a writer does not have to justify all of his assertions. An unjustified assertion could merely be just another premise for the argument.

Is it possible to call someone on this in conversation without being rude? e.g. "What do you mean 'it turns out'?"

"Cool, where did you learn that?"

But that's too much like conversationally asking a question about a detail, instead of leaping on a harmless locution with an intent to prove superiority.

What good is that?

"Care to cite some specific examples?"

or, brasher

"Citation needed."

> "Citation needed."

And you have to hold your hands up to indicate [square braces].

Or, if you're going for wiki-formatting, you somehow need to crook your hands & fingers into weird {{double-curly braces}}. Seems more painful than air-quotes...

Might be possible with shadow-puppetry... I'll work on it this weekend and publish the RFC on Monday.

Nope, you went one too far.

Make sure never to say anything like, "I was curious about X - what were some specific example?", though.

That might be too socially functional.

I'd be more concerned with people doing it in essays.

In my opinion this sort of phrase conveys the opposite of laziness... it is evidence that the author has gone to great lengths to coerce his gut feelings into something that seems rational, plausible, and convincing.

This sort of phrase works like a logical/causal exoskeleton intended to support the far more loosely linked set of intuitions that motivated the author to write/communicate about the topic.

These sorts of things are not even necessarily the biproduct of conscious thought. We are trained by academe that our intuitions must be served on a platter of logic and causality, and our sparks of inspiration (or emotion) are rarely experienced in remotely the same way that we would communicate them, so we back-fill.

Ponder this the next time you have a spark of insight about something and then contemplate telling someone else about it. Notice how your brain adds on the trappings of logical structure ex post. In some cases the idea was highly logical and the trappings come easily, while in other cases the idea is moderately ill-formed or speculative and one notices his/her brain being effortful in its quest to find the logical/persuasive platter on which to present the concoction to others.

"that’s not an argument at all! It’s a blind assertion based only on my own experience"

And this is a problem, making assertions/arguments based on direct experience?

Not relevant to the OP, but: I had never heard this phrase used so much before moving out here to California. Is it a local thing? I think it's especially over-represented here when preceded by "so": "So, it turns out that virality is a big win."

"So, it turns out that virality is a big win."

That phrase is the 1973 high school yearbook of the startup culture.

PG's assertions based on anecdotal or no evidence used to be one of my main complaints about his older essays. Though I often still agreed with his overall points, I didn't like how he would reach them. Having said that, it's definitely hard to toe the line between succinctness and backing up your claims.

But, as it turns out, he's gotten a lot better about substantiating his claims. I'm tempted not to substantiate my claim after that sentence, but his presentation at startup school last year was pretty much all about the evidence.

Hear, hear!

While we're at it, can we please add "At the end of the day..." to the list of pseudo-pithy (and indeed lazy) phrases to retire, too. JFK coined "in the final analysis..." which hung around for years, and years. "At the End of the Day" took its place, but has become just as tiresome, and meaningless.

"At the end of the day" is a Britishism that got transported over here during the leadup to the Iraq war, mainly because Tony Blair used it so much. I actually have not heard it very much recently.

Trips my BS detector. Like "Really!" and "You know,".

jsomers is the best writer I have found so far on Hacker News, short of Paul Graham. I tried to think of better, but it turns out that he is just more interesting and thoughtful than your average front page blogger.

That was an absolutely brilliant analysis. Such an innocent phrase can be so powerfully and deceptively persuasive!

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