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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Begging the Question

Normally, as you will know from earlier blogs, I don't get very excited about language changes that upset self-proclaimed "language purists" but there are certain things that get me worked up. One is the loss of the word "irony" and its adjectival form "ironic" due to the fact that half-educated people use this word in cases of coincidences. A baseball announcer might say of someone who made an error in the previous half inning and then, as the first batter up in the next half inning, hits a home run, "Isn't it ironic that he hit his last home run immediately after committing an error." There is nothing ironic about this. It is just an interesting coincidence.

I sympathize a bit with persons who do this since the concept of irony is not an easy one, as checking out the Webster on line dictionary entry will attest. Nevertheless, the people who don't understand the idea could just quit using the word. How about saying "major coincidence" or "very interesting coincidence" and leave "irony" and "ironic" in the mouths of those who know how to use it. The problem, of course, as always, the people who don't understand the concept, don't know that they don't understand it. But they do know that it is an intellectual's word and they want to seem to be smart. Now that's ironic.

Another thing that chafes my butt, is the systematic misuse of the term, "Begging the Question." The way it is used now is equivalent to "raises the question." One Tina Blue cites a nice example from U. S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who is married to Valerie Plame, who said in an interview
"It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on [the alleged Niger-Iraq nuclear materials exchange] that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"
As in this case, the "question" that is allegedly begged will normally be some question that intrigues.

In fact, begging the question means simply 'assuming what is to be proved'. IAnother web site (ain't the web grand?), called The Nizkor Project, provides the following nice and easy example of begging the question:
Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."
In many cases, begging the question occurs more subtly.
We all agree that we ought not take a person's life except in self defence.
Abortion does not occur out of self defence.
Therefore, abortion is wrong.
This argument has a suppressed premise without which the argument doesn't work and this is something like
An embryo/foetus is a person.
The problem is that the abortion controversy is about whether or not the foetus is a person. I seem to be indebted to Moonlight Sonata for this example.

Easy cases of begging the question like the existence of God case cited above are easily detected and so are easily dismissed. The harder cases are those what have suppressed premises that when brought into the light show that the argument that begs the question. These are the cases that drive me crazy. Unfortunately, thanks to the fact that "begging the question" has lost its original meaning to most people, charging someone with begging the question has lost its force, just as saying that something is ironic means squat any more.

The language changes that matter are those that result in the loss of a distinction -- irony vs interesting coincidence -- or loss of a way of saying something, as in "begging the question." A change in grammar usually has no consequences of interest. Some might say that the loss of subjunctive verb forms, as illustrated by
"If you were to do that, I would give you $1,000."
have no real consequences since those who have lost this form for expressing subjunctive utterances have not lost the ability to express subjunctive (counterfactual) notions Such a person might say,
"If you would do that, I would give you $1,000.
"This latter might grate on some persons nerves, but there is no real loss since the losses that matter are semantic losses, not grammatical losses.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Kelly said...

You can thank Alanis Morissette for the loss of meaning in the word "ironic". I have the same kinds of pet peeves sometimes ("ensure" vs. "insure"), and I likewise am annoyed by people who make a big deal out of linguistic "errors" which don't make a change in meaning (such as ending a sentence with a preposition). Sometimes, though, I'm part of that latter group.

1:47 PM

 
Blogger Neal said...

I've always found the term circular reasoning to be more intuitive than begging the question, with its archaic sense of beg, and since AFAIK CR has the same meaning as the (conservative) meaning of BTQ, I'd say that this particular important concept fortunately still has an unambiguous term to itself.

10:29 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Kelly, what's the point of putting "errors" in snigger quotes? The "rule" saying not to end a sentence with a preposition is ridiculous as Winsto9ng Curchill proved over 50 years ago when he responded to someone who tried to remind him of the rule by saying "That is something up with which I will not put."

Good point, "neal" about having an alternate and, for that matter, much clearer term. So, is the answer to give the pseudo intellectuals the "beg the question" phrase to use as they wish?

7:58 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I put the word "errors" in quotes to ensure that I am not misunderstood. I intended to convey the idea that I don't think they are actually errors--they are only errors in the view of English-language purists.

9:24 AM

 
Blogger Cristi said...

i would argue that your worries about semantic change also amount to a type of linguistic purism, though.

language isn't, and never can be, reserved for those who 'know how to use it.' the confluence of 'irony' and 'coincidence' has already happened, and no one seems to be worse off for it. those who wish to make a distinction between irony as it's commonly understood (the Alanis definition) and literary/academic irony can simply use those terms. this is an inconvenience for the educated, but i think it beats the exclusive (and impractical!) model that would require people to only use words they know that they know.

besides, we have umpteen terms that lack fine distinctions and have multiple meanings. if one's goal is perfect clarity, one should say 'y'all' and 'one' to avoid the 'you' confusion, for example. i don't think we can ever avoid these entanglements in language, though. (and where would poets be without this polysemy? and i think the world would be a sadder place if there were a song called 'isn't it a coincidence?')

semantic change is just another part of language change, and i would argue that it's never caused a 'real loss.'

10:51 AM

 
Blogger Mark said...

Kelly: We might be able to cite Alanis Morrisette's song as a factor in the change, but whether we can blame her or not is another matter. It may be that the irony of the song is that none of the situations she sings about are ironic!

2:31 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I do make a distinction between changes in form and semantic changes. The former are easy to deal with. The latter are not. The problem is that it is meaning that is communicated and when people diddle with that it affects communication. Thanks to the nitwits that misuse "irony" one can no longer communicate that one thinks something is ironic and have any real expectation that the person understands what you are saying because you don't know whether they understand the way you do or not.

Without conventions of truth, as David Lewis said, there would be no language. But conventions of truth are bound up with conventions of meaning. Yes semantic changes happen, especially in local dialects. But not so much in the standard language. The fact that in British slang "fanny" refers to one body part and in American slang it refers to a quite different one clearly can lead to confusion -- it did for me once. This is why having a written language where semantic change is relatively rare is a good thing.

8:50 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

I took an interest in your post about the misuse of the word irony and decided to do a little research.

According to one study, the word irony is used improperly close to 80% of the time. It seems there are a lot of half-educated nitwits walking around.

1:15 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I wouldn't argue against that percentage. If you take the average of the proportion of Americans that voted for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry, and subtract the kneejerk liberals from that figure, you would have the number of non-nitwits. Actually, I don't know how to calculate the nitwit factor but it is nontrivial. I would live somewhere else if I thought there were a better place.

9:09 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Oh, come LG, cheer up.

11:57 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

As long as Bush is President, Rice loses in the Collge World Series (baseball), and the US loses in the first round of the World Cup, what's to be cheery about.

Ah, one thing. My guineas are laying eggs. Now what should I do with them -- eat them or hatch them and be in for a world of work?

2:09 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Oh, by all means, hatch them. :-)

9:55 PM

 
Blogger the27man said...

"irony" could be defined as a grammar lesson in proper use of a term all the while misusing commas.

[sic] The problem, of course, as always, the people who don't understand the concept, [<-- not needed] don't know that they don't understand it. But they do know that it is an intellectual's word [<-- missing to denote the separation of two complete thoughts] and they want to seem to be smart.

10:31 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Don't confuse grammar corrections with making a counter argument. That would be a mistake.

7:09 AM

 
Blogger the27man said...

ah-HAHAHAHAHA!

7:34 PM

 
Blogger Daniel said...

Unless the grammatical mistakes(and therefore the corrections, too) illustrate the point he/she is trying to make about irony.

3:03 PM

 
Blogger Christiaan said...

Trying to invalidate the "rule" against ending a sentence with a preposition by citing the phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, "this is something up with which I will not put", is intellectually dishonest. The word "up" in that sentence is NOT used as a preposition but rather as an adverb, and so there is no reason that it should have been moved forward. The "proper" way to rearrange that sentence while adhering that the aforementioned rule would be "this is something with which I will not put up". Now, whether or not this (and the rule itself) is acceptable is another question, but at least it's the correct/honest question.

9:38 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

So, what you think is that I know better but am lying. I have nothing to say to someone as dumb as you are.

11:59 AM

 

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