Friday, April 03, 2009

For Michael

Begging the question from Mona Charen:

My children have started to become exacting grammarians. David, 15, is driven nearly crazy every time someone misuses the expression “beg the question.” It’s a good thing he is away on a band trip this week and didn’t catch a CNN report on the morning news. A story on the financial situation was phrased like this: “This begs the question: What happened to the TARP money?”

If David had been watching, he would have scowled at the screen and, voice raised, corrected the reporter. “It doesn’t ‘beg’ the question. It presents or suggests or poses the question. To beg the question is to avoid or circumvent it!” David is mostly right. “Beg the question” is widely misused. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words responded to a reader who asked whether it was ever correct to use the meaning David disdains. His answer is comprehensive. “You can easily find examples of the sense you quote, which is used just as though one might say ‘prompt the question’ or ‘forces one to ask’ . . . This meaning of the phrase seems to have grown up because people have turned for a model to other phrases in beg, especially the well-known I beg to differ, where beg is a fossil verb that actually used to mean ‘humbly submit.’ But the way we use beg to differ these days makes beg the question look the same as ‘wish to ask.’ It doesn’t — or at least, it didn’t. . . . The meaning you give is . . . gaining ground, and one or two recent dictionaries claim that it is now acceptable — the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, says it is ‘widely accepted in modern standard English.’ I wouldn’t go so far myself."


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