Miss Snark receives a clue

Miss Snark,

Forgive me for quibbling, because I count myself as one of your many fans, but in a recent post you misused the term "begs the question." To "beg the question" is to engage in a specific type of logical fallacy; and logic is taught in the philosophy department . . . where I hang out.

In a phrase, to beg the question is to include one's conclusion in one's premise. And that wasn't what you meant to suggest; what you meant to say was that such-and-such raises the question, or that it "begs" for a particular question to be asked.

Not knowing me and, therefore, having no reason to believe my explanation, please go to any logic or philosophy site on the Net and verify it.

Misuse of this term is a pet peeve of mine, something that drives me totally bonkers, even though it's misused by countless people. I've heard Keith Olbermann make the same error; I've heard Wolf Blitzer, Susan Estrich and Mark Shields do it. In fact, the only journalist I've heard go out of his way to use it properly is Jeff Greenfield.

Again, I admire your column, and apologize if I came off like some crazy purist.

Crazy purists are the guys who have fistfights about why Sean Connery is the "only true James Bond" and why Bach can only be truly appreciated on period instruments.

Telling someone (even Miss Snark) they used a phrase incorrectly is called "editing" here at Snark Central.

Anyway, I looked it up.


And you're right, I'm wrong.

I actually thought it meant that it didn't answer the question but that's a mistake for another day.

Add this one to "dragoon", which turns out not to be a contingent but just one guy.

I'm sure there are others, and dog willing, more to come.


The Anti-Wife said...

Miss Snark is not alone in the improper use of this phrase. I'll be raising rather than begging from now on.


Mark said...

It's a very often misused statement. All the better for philosophical education.

Anonymous said...

Lord forbid anyone should write the way people actually talk.

Anonymous said...

Language is fluid. If a meaning has passed into common vernacular, I think it has validity. For me, I was brought up always understanding "that begs the question" to mean, "that prompts the question."

If someone uses that phrase, and I infer it to mean "that prompts the question" and they meant it to mean "that prompts the question" then we understand each other. Communication successful, ergo that's what the expression means.

It ain't wrong, it's just different.

Anonymous said...

I was a crazy Connery purist for 30 years ... until I saw Daniel Craig's version and switched teams.

But misuse of "begging the question" still makes me cringe.

McKoala said...

So not the response I expected.

McKoala said...

Just realised that made it sound like I wrote the question. No I didn't, not me! What I meant was...oh never mind, just shoot me now. I'm furry like a squirrel.

Anonymous said...

No, no. Craig is not the true James Bond. Connery still reigns. Of course without hair he looks like shit, but then the cold war is over so we don't need him anymore anyway.

So much for gratitude.

Thanks goodness he still wore wigs until Gorbachev declared an end to the hostility.

The Tufts Amalgamates said...

Though this is all, in fact, true, it must be noted that when you click on the tag "Miss Snark was WRONG" to search for similar entries, this is the only one that comes up.

The future resident of a slush pile calls me back now...ta!

alternatefish said...

crikey, I'm not the only person who gets cranky at the misuse of "begging the question?" ?!?! and nobody ever believes me when I correct them, even when I use my awesome "are you still beating your wife?" example

And it's Sean all the way.

Anonymous said...

This is completely stupid and anal. If I wrote emails to people who used my pet peeve words and phrases, I'd be online all day. Oh, and like the writer of this email has never said something incorrectly. Or said something that was a pet peeve of someone else's. Oh, wait, he just did! Because one of my pet peeves is being a know-it-all pain in the ass!

Petrea Burchard said...

Miss S., classy of you to admit an error so graciously.

mckoala. Furry. Made me laugh.

Anonymous said...

I knew it was a good idea to procrastinate and read Miss Snark today! I learned something new.

archer said...

Bach can only be truly appreciated on period instruments

Actually, I prefer Bach on period vocalists.

Cellophane Queen said...

As long as nobody uses "decimate" correctly, then I see no reason not to beg a question any way I please. On the other hand, I don't recall that I've ever used that particular phrase.

Unknown said...

I am SO glad I'm not the only person who cringes at begs the questions. I was beginning to think I didn't know what I was talking about. The other one that drives me nuts is "alright" which seems now to be becoming all right. Oh, and Wala, for voila. Call me a harpsichord.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, we all have our darlings in the litter of peeves. One of mine is bad punctuation, and punctuation is taught in the English department, where I hang out.

"...type of logical fallacy; and logic is taught..."

A semicolon acts as a conjuction. Use one or the other. Using both is wrong.

I do appreciate the reminder of the One True Meaning of "begs the question," though. I never use the phrase because I've never looked it up and want to spare myself yet another instance of sounding dumb.

And "alright" is revolting!

dan said...

"beg the question 1 (of a fact or action) raise a question or point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question. 2 avoid the question; evade the issue. 3 assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it."

That from the Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition.

So yes, language is fluid and the misuse of the term has made its definition into something that it wasn't.

But I don't this the emailer is anal and I think "lord forbid anyone should write the way people talk" is a misguided comment. Just because a phrase is often misused doesn't mean you have to use it.

It's like the phrase "I could care less." Everyone says it but it's dumb, and it's no imposition on the writer to say "I couldn't care less", which has the benefit of being idiomatic and making sense.

You can use all sorts of idioms in dialogue and in prose you hope will read casual, but in general, so long as it's ain't at cross-purposes with yer stylistic aims, just say the grammatically correct thing. IMnotsoHO.

Jim Oglethorpe said...

I like the fact that I don't have to worry about being perfect on this website. Puh-lease.

Unknown said...

Actually, using "I could care less." makes perfect sense, provided you're using it to say that in fact, you could care less... but don't. ;)

When you MEAN "I couldn't care less", then it doesn't make sense. I use "I could care less" when I mean literally that I could care less... it's possible... but I don't.

*This ellipsis abuse is brought to you by Writing Dragon

Matt said...

Wouldn't the section under "Modern Usage" in that Wikipedia article make Miss Snark in fact correct?

If one assumes the goal of language is communicating thoughts and ideas, and the majority of people understand Snark's usage of "begging the question", wouldn't that mean Snark's is the "correct" usage?

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark deserves the right to foul up the language too... she's an agent, after all, not a writer... she can't be everything for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I find this interesting. I was working on the theory that if you correct someone in a polite and considerate way they will listen. Guess I was wrong.

The writer of this helped not only Miss Snark but also a great many others who do not find joy in misusing language. English is complicated, just because we don't know the rules doesn't mean we should try.