Saturday, April 30, 2011

Begging the Question

One thing all real writers are committed to is grammar. I mean good grammar, as opposed to the bad kind that your typical old-school English teacher was once wont to point out.

Of all the things that peeve me, bad grammar is near the top of the list. It gets beat out only by bad logic, which is another topic.

Writers have published books about all the major grammatical mistakes that seem to besmirch our number three means of ordinary communication, which is beaten out only by number two, the spoken word, and the new number one, the twittered word. (Ordinarily, we talk and twitter more than we write, with exceptions such as Emily Dickinson and her fellow agoraphobics.)

Of all the grammatical errors to which flesh is heir, the worst, in my studied opinion, is the misuse of the phrase, “begs the question.”

My first notice of this error goes all the way back to the days when onetime NBA great Bill Walton used to announce television games. His colleague in crime, whose name escapes memory, would say something like, “Harris’s down. He’s holding his thigh. Writhing on the floor. Seems to be groaning. He’s in real pain.” To which expert analyst and former UCLA student-athlete and scholar-gentleman Mr. Walton would reply, ex cathedra, “Which begs the question, who hit him?” etc. etc.

I don’t know if Mr. Walton was the first to misuse this phrase, and to misuse it ad nauseam. Maybe he just popularized it. All I know is that I kept hearing it on the airwaves Then I started to see it in print—first in the local rag, then in some of the finer newspapers.

The tipping point came when I saw it in a headline on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. At which point I dashed off an email to that paper’s ombudswoman, who replied, “I asked the chief of the editorial copy desk about this because op-ed headlines go through that desk. He agrees with you.” He went on, she wrote, to quote the appropriate definition, from Wikipedia: “In logic, begging the question has traditionally described a type of logical fallacy (also called petitio principii) in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. . . . In popular usage, ‘begging the question’ is often used to mean that a statement invites another obvious question. This usage is disparaged.”

This popular but false usage has grown apace. I’m left wondering whether the bleeding could have been stanched by a timely editorial from the Post.

Note: I said earlier that this grammatical error was the most grievous in my studied opinion. I added that qualifier because the error is one of those mistakes that erases the original, and true, meaning of the phrase. What’s a poor reader to do when faced with the Latin phrase, petitio principii? To say nothing of the poor writer who wishes to translate it into plain English.

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