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Begging the Question

The phrase beg the question has been around for centuries. But now everyone seems to be saying it, maybe because it sounds smart. It’s a shame that no one bothers to look it up.

Here are three of the countless examples of beg the question one can find online: “It begs the question of who Fluke really is.” “Exports’ clout begs the question: Was NAFTA good or bad?” “He did stand-up comedy once, which begs the question, What can’t this guy do?”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. In each case, the writer should have said “raises the question” or “suggests the question” or “demands the question.”

Until beg the question became a fad phrase, most people who weren’t scholars or intellectuals lived long, fruitful lives with no occasion to use it. “To beg the question” is a somewhat quirky translation of the Latin term petitio principii, or “laying claim to a principle.” It is a technical term for reaching unwarranted conclusions, often through the folly of circular reasoning.

A succinct definition of beg the question is found in H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself.” Fowler offers this example: “Capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase.” There are two unproven assertions in that sentence, and yet the second one is supposed to prove the first.

Here’s another kind of question-begging: “Good grammar matters because proper speech or writing makes a difference.” Any thesaurus will list proper as a synonym for good and make a difference as synonymous with the verb matter. And grammar is the study of speech and writing. So in this instance of begging the question, the “proof” is merely the premise restated in different words. That’s like saying, “Good grammar matters because I just said so.”

Those who are tempted to class up their articles or conversations with beg the question should probably reconsider, unless they’re discussing a logical fallacy. Otherwise, make it “raise the question.”

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Posted on Monday, December 1, 2014, at 7:31 pm


Media Watch

Here is another batch of bloopers from dailies and periodicals.

• “Canada is sending between 50 to 100 military advisers.” Can anyone explain the presence of “between” in that sentence?

• “He showed a much improved grasp of the English language than a year ago.” Someone who writes “much improved than a year ago” should concentrate on his own grasp.

• “It was as bad, if not worse, than expected.” Without the nonessential phrase “if not worse” we are left with “It was as bad than expected.” Here is the grammatical version of the sentence: “It was as bad as, if not worse than, expected.” That may be correct, but it’s no prize package. How about “It was as bad as expected, if not worse.”

• “Roast lamb and venison comprise the meat course.” Writers love to use comprise, but they keep getting it wrong. The word means “to consist of.” Do roast lamb and venison consist of the meat course? No, the meat course comprises roast lamb and venison. (Note: comprised of is always incorrect.)

• “The goal is to showcase the oddly gentle enormity of this 46-foot-high room.” This strange sentence becomes bizarre when one realizes that enormity means “great wickedness.” Better make it “immensity” or “vastness.”

• “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone in the world.” The sentence, taken literally, means that South Koreans and “anyone in the world” are two separate groups. One key word solves the problem: “South Koreans eat more instant noodles per capita than anyone else in the world.”

• Let’s close with two examples of the havoc caused by losing track of your subject …

“The first thing Ryan saw were her knees.” How’s that again? The first thing were? If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular: The first thing he saw was her knees. If the writer doesn’t like how that looks and sounds, how about “The first things Ryan saw were her knees.”

“Reading ‘thought pieces’ on our mobile devices are making us shallow.” Reading are making us shallow? The writer got distracted by “devices” and forgot that the subject, “Reading,” is singular.

That’s all for now. We’d love to retire Media Watch, but we can’t until the happy day that all writers proof their articles and avoid fancy words that they may have forgotten to look up.

 

Pop Quiz

The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors. Our solutions are below.

1. “We’re in unchartered waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
3. “Many Americans despise we in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks are very low.”
5. “There was twelve men and one women in the room.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. “We’re in uncharted waters here.”
2. “It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning.” (Writing “a.m.” would be redundant)
3. “Many Americans despise us in the media.”
4. “The likelihood of outbreaks is very low.”
5. “There were twelve men and one woman in the room.” (Did you spot both mistakes?)

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Posted on Monday, November 24, 2014, at 8:41 pm


Don’t Dis Disinterested

We recently heard from a reader who defended using disinterested to mean “uninterested.” To most language mavens, this amounts to high treason. The sticklers insist that disinterested can only mean “impartial, unbiased”: you’d want a disinterested judge at your trial—an uninterested judge would just want to go home.

Our correspondent made two compelling arguments. His first was pragmatic: countless people nowadays use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably. (True, but countless people also use infer and imply interchangeably, and no one is suggesting they are synonyms.) His second argument was historical: both words meant “not interested” back in the seventeenth century. (That may be, but writers and scholars have affirmed the words’ different meanings for many generations now.)

The writer Ben Yagoda conducted a survey in his advanced writing seminar and found that ninety-four percent of his students believed that uninterested and disinterested both mean “not interested.” But after further study, including an Internet search, Yagoda concluded that the formal meaning of disinterested, while imperiled, is safe for the time being. It is inarguable that words change and evolve, but the traditionalists are determined to keep these two words distinct, with wholehearted support from most English authorities.

Largely absent from this discussion is the difference between the prefixes un and dis. In adjectives, un simply means “not,” whereas dis can mean several things, including “deprived of,” “the opposite of,” “in a different direction.” Let’s observe un vs. dis in action with other common words …

• If you are unaffected, you are unchanged (or unpretentious). If you are disaffected, you are alienated from authority or at odds with society in general.

• You are unable if you cannot do a task at a given moment, but you may never be able to do it if you are disabled.

• When you’re uncredited, you haven’t received the recognition you deserve. When you’re discredited, your reputation has been sullied.

• If you don’t measure up, you are unqualified, although you can change that with a little hard work. But once you have been disqualified, it’s over for you.

• If you feel unease, you are restless or uncomfortable. There is much more on the line when you have a disease.

So the prefixes un and dis cannot be considered interchangeable. We see from the examples above what a difference un and dis can make when one rather than the other precedes the same root word. We should take this evidence to heart and resist excuses for making uninterested and disinterested synonymous.

 

Pop Quiz

Pick the correct word. Answers are below.

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested/disinterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a(n) uninterested/disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This uninterested/disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Despite her demands for equal pay, she claims to be uninterested in the theory of feminism.

2. As a disinterested observer, I can enjoy the game more than a diehard fan is able to.

3. This disinterested truth-seeker was getting it from both sides.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2014, at 1:10 pm


Fighting for Literally

There is no escaping the maddening phrase literally like. An Internet search yields teeth-grinders like these: “Being there was literally like stepping back in time.” “Eating this steak was literally like eating dirt.” “Neymar literally flops like a fish out of water.”

The words in the phrase literally like don’t belong together—literally refers to objective reality, whereas like introduces an analogy, and all analogies are subjective.

We should limit literally to unadorned descriptions of what exists or happens—and exclude it from our interpretations or opinions. Style guides are unanimous on the topic of literally: the word should never refer to anything but verifiable facts. The truth of any statement containing literally must be clear and indisputable to every sane living being, whether it’s a baker in Yakima or a ballerina in Yakutsk.

In 1909, the writer Ambrose Bierce offered this example of literally abuse in his booklet Write It Right: “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” Bierce’s comment: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”

Why undermine so powerful a word as literally when alternatives are readily available? Many authorities recommend virtually, and in a perfect world, virtually would be the ideal substitute. It works fine as a replacement for literally in the first example in the first paragraph: “Being there was virtually like stepping back in time.” But too often virtually sounds fussy. Note how humbler words work better with the other two sentences above: “Eating the steak was really like eating dirt.” “Neymar actually flops like a fish out of water.”

Something else to bear in mind: literally is an adverb. Many writing instructors recommend purging adverbs from your writing wherever possible. (Mark Twain once said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”) Look again at the three original examples above. The adverb isn’t needed in any of them. Adding literally appears to be no more than an easy, lazy way to spice up three humdrum, cliché-heavy sentences. Roy H. Copperud addresses this ploy in his Dictionary of Usage and Style: “The habit of demanding that the reader be thunderstruck by commonplaces, which the meaningless use of literally exemplifies, is tiresome.”

No other word in English can quite say what literally says. That is why the fight to keep its authority uncorrupted is so important to us sticklers.

 

Pop Quiz

Is there a better way to say these sentences? Suggested solutions are below.

1. Literally nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word is literally the worst mistake you can make.
3. I literally died laughing and had to run out of the room.
4. These people must literally live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man literally fell to his knees and prayed.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Virtually nobody goes there anymore.
2. Misusing this word may be among the worst mistakes you can make.
3. I laughed so hard I had to run out of the room.
4. These people must live in another galaxy.
5. The distraught man fell to his knees and prayed.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2014, at 6:41 pm


Verbal Illusions

Today we’ll look at three perplexing sentences that are the verbal equivalent of optical illusions.

• Every man and woman has arrived. Why has? The phrase man and woman denotes a plural subject. Consider the following grammatically sound sentence: The happy man and woman have arrivedEvery and happy both function as adjectives that modify man and woman in these almost identical sentences. But every is so powerfully singular that it forces us to say has, despite the plural subject.

• More than one person was involved. Why was? Doesn’t more mean at least two? Yet there is no English scholar we know of who would change the verb to “were involved,” even though we would say, “More were involved than one person.”

Reference books do not offer much help with this conundrum, and the Internet is no help at all. But John B. Bremner’s Words on Words and Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer both address the topic. Bremner claims that more than is an adverbial phrase modifying the adjective one, “which is singular and therefore qualifies a singular noun, which takes a singular verb.” That explanation might fly in the rarefied air of academia, but to accept it we must ignore the inconvenient fact that more than one person means “two or more persons,” and would seem to require the plural verb were involved.

Bernstein doesn’t try to justify More than one person was involved as good grammar, just “good idiom.” He says “was involved” is an example of attraction, a linguistic term that accounts for certain incorrect word choices: “The verb is singular ‘by attraction’ to the one and to the subsequent noun [person].” Since “good idioms” often defy logic, we lean toward Bernstein’s interpretation.

• All but one ship was sunk. Another example of “good idiom.” The principles that apply to more than one also apply to all but one. If we separate all from but one, the verb becomes plural: Of the five ships, all were sunk but one.

One is free to endorse elaborate justifications for the validity of More than (or All but) one person was involved. But it is just as reasonable to conclude that this oddity is nothing more than institutionalized error—people have been saying it wrong for so long that we’ve become used to it, and More than one person were involved, the logical construction, sounds wrong. We see institutionalized error on the march today in ungrammatical usages like “each of them were here,” “neither of you are right,” and “a person should do their best,” all of which we suspect will be standard English in a decade or two, despite the anguished screams of purists.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, at 2:14 pm