Monthly Archives: September 2011

Rooting for Miliband

According to the Guardian’s review of Ed Miliband’s turn at Labour party conference:

This was at root a speech in an ethical socialist tradition with deep roots in British labour history

That’s what we mathematologists call a ‘square root’.

A poem with language quite heinous…

Stan Carey recently ran a competition: write limericks on the theme of language. I had a few goes but didn’t win, although writing them was a pleasure in itself. These were my entries (yes, I respect you so much, dear reader, that I offer you recycled failures):

When proofreading great men of letters
Remember they think they’re your betters.
They wrote it? They meant it!
A rule broke? They ‘bent’ it!
The editors they like are stetters.

In matters linguistic and verbal
I’m often reduced to a burble
I try for a word
But it comes out absurd
Having stuck in my throat like a furball

When you’re a stylistic obsessive
You see words and get all possessive
If a line’s badly phrased
Then your hackles get raised
And your voice becomes passive-aggressive

The three winners were very good, as were plenty of the other entries. Do take a look. Oh, and here are another two, which I’ve written today, just for the hell of it (and getting a bit meta):

A young poet from Alabama
Declined to pursue fame and glamour
He sat on his arse
And decided to parse
Limericks with impeccable grammar

This ditty with language quite heinous
Is so crude it really could pain us
Its first lines allude
To an ending most rude –
But I think that it need not detain us

(See also my grammar haiku.)

Stuff your jargon

Freelance report writers are usually obliged to use a certain amount of their clients’ favourite jargon, whether they like it or not. This writer’s patience seems to have cracked mid-sentence:

The lead teacher using the materials is the Eco Schools Coordinator, and the Green Group undertakes activities which are linked to eco ‘stuff’, which includes green issues, citizenship and gardening.

This is quite brilliantly subversive and I wish I could leave it this way.

Another round of begging

I got a thought-provoking comment on my last post about begging the question. Lev made the quite correct point that in the traditional sense of the phrase, ‘beg’ has a very unusual meaning (‘presuppose’, ‘prejudge’ or ‘take for granted’), which you don’t see anywhere else. This oddity, he argued, counts against the intelligibility and usefulness of the traditional meaning.

What this made me realise is that in the modern, more commonly used sense of the phrase, exactly the same thing is true.

‘Beg’ normally means ‘plead’ or ‘request’, but in ‘that would beg the question of how you’re going to afford it’, it means something such as ‘raise’, ‘provoke’, ‘lead to’, ‘make important’, ‘motivate me to ask’, ‘require us to talk about’ and so on – a collection I find suspiciously motley. This kind of begging, unlike the usual kind, can be done accidentally and unknowingly, and can be done by an object, a fact or a situation as well as by a person.

Are there other phrases that use ‘beg’ in this way? I can’t think of any.

(NB In neither sense of BTQ does ‘beg’ mean ‘ask’.)

I looked at the OED online entry for ‘beg’. There’s nothing that connects to the modern sense of BTQ, but here’s what it says on the traditional sense:

To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.

It gives some historical examples:

1581 I say this is still to begge the question.

1680 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question.

1687 Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.

1788 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.

1852 Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

And gives “to take for granted without basis or justification: a statement that begs the very point we’re disputing”, as well as the clearly related “to fail or refuse to come to grips with; avoid; evade: a report that consistently begs the whole problem”.

So, this sense of ‘beg’ needn’t attach to ‘question’, although nowadays that’s where you’re overwhelmingly likely to find it.

This leaves us with two meanings for BTQ: one has a centuries-old pedigree but is nowadays unknown to (I assume) a majority of people; the other is more recent (I don’t know how recent) but is now much better known; each, though, uses ‘beg’ very idiosyncratically.

As I noted above, the modern sense does seem to be less sharply defined, with a menagerie of semi-related paraphrases. This really smacks of a mutation based on a misunderstanding of the older meaning. But it clearly caught on.

Language, like all social conventions, changes. That’s fine, and when a change becomes widespread, lexicographers and amateur internet grammar geeks have to acknowledge it. But when a change is based on a mistake, when it leads to a meaning that itself isn’t obvious from the usual meanings of the words involved, when the new usage is so effortlessly replaceable, and when the old usage persists – among a significant minority, who find the new usage an annoying distraction – then we’re entitled to acknowledge it without endorsing it.

This change gains us nothing we didn’t already have and muddies some once-clear waters.

My policy: I never use BTQ in the modern sense and always change it in editing; even if the meaning would be clear, it would risk alienating some of the readers and it would propagate the muddiness. When the older sense is appropriate, I use/accept it only if most of the audience are also likely to understand it; if not, I use some more roundabout but more accessible substitute.

The point of language is to communicate. Writing should focus not on some supposed set of immutable, objective rules but on its readers, even if they are a diverse bunch. And it’s on the grounds of communicative clarity, not pedantry for its own sake, that I think we should restrict BTQ to its traditional meaning – but used cautiously.

A question of begging

As Mignon Fogarty notes, it’s hard to find someone using the phrase ‘beg the question’ properly.

Here’s an example of the usual mistake:

You say you’re going to buy me a chocolate factory, but that begs the question of how you’re going to afford it.

‘Beg the question’ does not mean ‘bring up something that needs to be asked’. What it does mean (which I only found out by doing a philosophy course) is ‘assume what you are trying to prove’.

A question-begging argument contains its conclusion within its premises – usually implicitly, otherwise the fallacy would be easy to spot. ‘Question’ here means ‘the matter under debate’, and if you beg it, you’re trying to get a debating victory handed to you for free rather than earning it by the sound use of logic.

The phrase is correctly used like this:

Descartes’s argument that the cost of a chocolate factory can never be known begs the question.

Here are a couple of simple, unsubtle examples of question-begging:

  1. The order in the universe couldn’t possibly have arisen without a creator, so there must be a god.
  2. We need reform because the status quo is not sustainable.

In the first case, the premise utterly denies (without giving a reason) the possibility of an atheistic explanation – something you’d only do if you’d already accepted the conclusion. In the second case (you get a lot of question-begging in politics), the conclusion and the ‘reason’ are exactly the same statement, phrased differently.

Let’s back up.

You may have bristled at my first sentence, in which I claimed to know – unlike the ignorant masses – how to use this phrase ‘properly’. Isn’t that arrogant, elitist prescriptivism? Well, we have plenty of alternatives to cover the common use: ‘raise the question’, ‘prompt the question’, ‘lead me to ask’, ‘cause me to wonder’ and so on. And as the technical sense of the phrase is useful, it’s worth restricting the phrase to mean this.

Also, without keeping ‘beg the question’ distinctive in this way, the very best use of it I’ve ever seen wouldn’t work. It comes in David Foster Wallace’s vast, spectacular 2001 essay Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage. Wallace is responding to Stephen Pinker’s view that, given how good our brains are at understanding language even if it doesn’t meet traditional pedantic standards of grammar, those standards are “inconsequential decorations”.

Wallace gives a few examples of when grammatical precision helps to speed understanding and thus helps one be considerate to and respectful of one’s audience. He then writes:

From the fact that linguistic communication is not strictly dependent on usage and grammar it does not necessarily follow that the traditional rules of usage and grammar are nothing but “inconsequential decorations.” Another way to state the objection is that just because something is “decorative” does not necessarily make it “inconsequential.” Rhetorically, Pinker’s flip dismissal is bad tactics, for it invites the very question it begs: inconsequential to whom?

It invites the very question it begs. Beautiful. And apt: question-begging only works when it goes unnoticed. But, if we let ‘beg the question’ mean the same thing as ‘invite the question’, this gem would be ground into dust.


Update: I’ve written a follow-up post.