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Jewish World Review
April 3, 2009 / 9 Nissan 5769
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 (worldwidewords.org)
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
I'm delighted and a little surprised that my publicly educated boys are
learning grammar at all. When I attended public school, grammar was
completely out of style. I suppose the geniuses at Teachers College
(whose views infect all of American education) thought it would stunt
our creativity to learn how to diagram a sentence. In any case, most of
my school cohorts didn't come across words like gerund or past
participle until we studied a foreign language in eighth grade! My 11th
grade English teacher, Mrs. Payne, was kind enough to spend several
after-school hours teaching me the basics of grammar because I asked.
But that was an extracurricular exception for an eccentric.
Ben, 13, was actually given an extra credit project in English: Find an
example of incorrect grammar or usage in your daily life. He wanted to
snap a photo of the checkout line at the supermarket that reads "15
items or less." It should be "fewer," of course. I suggested one that
grates like fingernails on a blackboard every time I hear it. When you
renew your prescriptions at our pharmacy, a recorded voice asks for the
prescription number. After you enter it you hear: "The prescription you
entered is associated with the name C-H-A-R. If this is the first four
letters of your last name, press 1." AGGGGHH! I respond with only
marginally less anguish when I hear "enormity" misused. Enormity is a
fine word meaning (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) "The
quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness . 2. A
monstrous offense or evil ." It just happens to sound like "enormous."
And so you will hear members of Congress, TV pundits and others use
phrases like "the enormity of the crisis we face." No.
I don't want to discourage my kids' fastidiousness about language. But
the truth is that language is always changing, and that sometimes the
sheer weight and momentum of error crash through the ramparts of proper
usage and the unacceptable is accepted. This openness has another side
as well receptiveness to all enhancements. English has taken
liberally from dozens of other tongues. It has always been this way. The
French, Italians, and Germans established learned societies to maintain
the purity of their languages. The French to this day are subject to
seizures when English words like "weekend" insinuate themselves into la
belle langue. But English just keeps expanding. According to The
Economist, the number of words in the English language will pass 1
million at the end of this month, far more than any other language.
By all means, let's celebrate the flexibility and versatility of
English. But please, enormity doesn't refer to size.
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