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Words to the Wise

Begging the Question of the English Language

Is it my imagination, or are there more people grumbling these days about how English grammar and usage are going to the dogs? CBC Radio recently asked, does grammar matter? and invited listeners to tweet and email the Grammar Police with their pet peeves. They did so, "in droves." Listening to the podcast of the Grammar Police Finale, you could be forgiven for thinking the situation is dire.

Beacon readers might suppose that because I'm an editor, I'm also a grammar crank, like those school teachers of yore who drummed silly rules into innocent wooly heads, rules that were never rules but became cemented in the brains of otherwise intelligent people. I'll admit that I used to be a crank—when I was green and editorially uneducated. But I have learned so much about the origins and evolution and elasticity of the English language that I now actually become excited by the changes I see, especially when they are used creatively by writers, and I smile to myself over the sweat people generate at the use of gonna and anyways and friending. Get over it, I think; the language she is ever a-changin'.

But—and isn't there always a but?—I am saddened when I see a good expression lost through change of usage. Such is the expression beg the question. The last time I heard beg the question used in its original sense was ... well, I really can't remember. The expression meant "to assume the truth of the thing that is to be proved" or to argue in a circle. A classic example is, "Reasonable people are those who think and reason intelligently," which begs the question, what does it mean to think and reason intelligently? Today, almost universally, the expression means "to raise the question" or "to invite an obvious question," and the original meaning is all but extinct. Which is too bad, because it's a succinct way to express a difficult concept and there are other, simple ways to express what it has come to mean. I always point this out to my clients who use the expression in their writing. Their speaking I can do nothing about, but to preserve the original in writing is at least something.

References:

Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, 2003.

On the evolution of the English language, I recommend Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue: The English Language, HarperCollins, 2001, and An Appreciation of English: A language in motion, by James Harbeck.

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