Feb 18, 2013

Grammar Hammer: Can You Really Beg a Question?

I’m not often willing to admit when I make a mistake (especially a grammatical one), so it begs the question, can a staunch grammarian still make mistakes?

Yes, and I just did.

Many of the articles I read as inspiration for this column talk about the evolution of language. Specifically, how something that was 100% incorrect in 1950 is now so commonplace that it’s no longer viewed as a mistake.  A couple of weeks ago, I debunked the urban grammatical myth of ending sentences with prepositions as a grammatical faux pas.

“Begging the question” is another example of the grammatical mine field we trudge through in our communications. The actual definition of “begging the question” comes from logic. It’s used to indicate that someone has made a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support. It can be a premise that’s independent from the conclusion or in a simpler form, the premise can be just a restatement of the conclusion itself (definition, courtesy of Grammar Girl).

Basically, when you beg the question, the initial assumption of the statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.

RIGHT: “I think that sweater is hideous because it’s ugly.”

The proof I’m offering in that sentence (“because it’s ugly”) says the same thing as “the sweater is hideous.” I’ve just begged the question.

WRONG (technically): “If there are so many websites and articles dedicated to writing, it begs the question, why are there so many people who can’t write their way out of a paper bag?”  And thus, we enter the mine field. Using this phrase to raise a question is becoming more commonplace, and you’ll see examples in major media, print, interviews, and around the card table with your friends, discussing the issue du jour.

So, does it matter if we beg the question correctly or incorrectly? I think the website Beg The Question offers the best argument:

“While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous ‘modern’ usage. This is why we fight.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

PR Newswire’s customer content services team proof-reads every press release they handle: they find and fix tens of thousands of errors and mistakes each year.   The team checks URLs to ensure correct linking,  in financial releases they cross-check all of the numbers in the release text and tables, and (of course) they spot errors of usage, grammar and punctuation.  Your press releases and other content are in good hands with our eagle-eyed crew of wordsmiths.

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