Wordsmith.org: the magic of words

Wordsmith Talk

About Us | What's New | Search | Site Map | Contact Us  

Previous Thread
Next Thread
Print Thread
Page 1 of 5 1 2 3 4 5
#204 03/15/00 08:46 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 6
B
Bryan Offline OP
stranger
OP Offline
stranger
B
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 6
Is anyone else sick and tired of people misusing the phrase "to beg the question" as if it meant "to raise the question"? The phrase was misused this way in a recent issue of Newsweek. I wrote them a letter about it and got a reply: the respondent cited Fowler, which he misinterpreted as support for the article's usage!!


#205 03/16/00 04:36 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 1
T
stranger
Offline
stranger
T
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 1
Yes, indeed. I fear that the problem you identify may run rather deep--beginning the writer's (or speaker's) inability to recognize petitio principii as a logical fallacy. Bryan Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage" contains a well written article on the subject that notes not only "inviting the obvious question" but also "evading the issue" as mistaken uses.


#206 03/17/00 08:11 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 9
C
stranger
Offline
stranger
C
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 9
I too have objected to this usage, so I wrote to Merriam-Webster. They said it is not in the dictionaries yet "because it is too recent." But they added, "Given the standard sources in which this use of the phrase appears ... it is highly unlikely that any dictionary would recognize it AS ANYTHING BUT STANDARD when they get around to entering it.


#207 03/22/00 02:31 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 3
M
stranger
Offline
stranger
M
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 3
Bryan asked -Is anyone else sick and tired of people misusing the phrase "to beg the question" as if it meant "to raise the question"?
I am. This phrase seems to be misused in the sense of "Requires that the question be asked", as well.


#208 03/27/00 08:22 AM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 14
W
stranger
Offline
stranger
W
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 14
Bryan, I wonder if this particular battle isn't lost when the editorial staff at a journal with some pretensions like Newsweek can make such a horrible blue and then cite the Fowler boys in defence.

I reckon the decline in journalists' use of language started when proofreaders (and to some extent knowledgeable subeditors) were largely dispensed with after the introduction of electronic systemsto the print media. No proofreader would have let that through. And of course the rot quickly spread to TV and radio journalism.

I'm faily tolerant about some 'errors' but what makes me sad about those like 'beg the question' is that they rob English of a way of directly expressing an idea that can only be replaced with some clumsy, convoluted trip around the block.


#209 03/29/00 11:36 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
J
newbie
Offline
newbie
J
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
[ Re-edited to replace "descriptionist" with "descriptivist". --Jeff ]

Hi Bryan,

I have consulted _The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage_ (3rd and latest edition of this venerable work), to verify Newsweek’s claim. I regret to inform you that it seems to me that Fowler’s does indeed mention that this questionable usage of “beg the question” has become standard usage. What is standard usage? According to the linguistic descriptivists, of which Fowler’s editor, Robert Burchfield, is a leading exponent, standard usage is essentially common usage. According to these good folks, grammar and lexicon wait for no man to pronounce them legal, and no one has ever been able to hold them in stasis in order to “preserve” their current state of “excellence”. Burchfield, who by the way is the recent editor of the _Oxford English Dictionary_, Second Edition, and as such, ought to garner a certain degree of credibility, points out that even Samuel Johnson, around 1750, eventually came to realize that language is a dynamic phenomenon, and that even the French and their national academy were unable to halt the changes which necessarily must occur in any living language. It is that word “living” which is all important. To the descriptivist, this dynamism in language is a continual source of wonder and fascination.

In the complilation of the “New Fowler’s”, many thousands of citations from current language sources were collected, and computerized. This database provided scientific evidence supporting the book’s findings. Dr. Burchfield evidently found enough evidence to convince him that this new usage of “beg the question” had become standard.

Rather than bemoan the “corruption” of this particular idiom, we might try to keep in mind that many of the words and expressions we use today are “corruptions” of their previous forms or meanings. Nearly all the words we employ today have evolved from earlier forms, and in the process acquired new or sloughed off old meanings. Burchfield in all his linguistic wisdom, has assured us, in his preface to Fowler’s, that our beloved native tongue is quite healthy, and will undoubtedly withstand the onslaught of the unprecedented change it is currently undergoing, as it keeps pace with the needs of the people to express new ideas, and becomes ever more efficient in doing so. As for “beg the question”, we will just have to adjust to the fact that this collocation now seems to have acquired more than one sense, and that the audience is no longer at liberty to beg the question, what is meant by its use? The audience has a responsibility to interpret it correctly, assuming that the context offers enough clues as to which sense is implied, while the communicator is responsible for providing the necessary clues to insure correct interpretation. In practice, this is almost always unconscious.



#210 03/30/00 12:17 AM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
J
newbie
Offline
newbie
J
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
Hello tifarmer,

Your quoting Garner’s “Dictionary of Legal Usage” is interesting, and I thank you for doing so. However, that book strikes me as inappropriate in this case. Newsweek is a publication with a very broad and general audience, therefore, the magazine's contributors are not likely to be dealing with the concept of petitio principii in any legal sense. All the general dictionaries I consulted listed under ‘beg’ or “beg the question” the less specific sense of evading or sidestepping, most also included the sense of assuming as proved the very thing being argued. The excellent _Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage_ explained that the phrase “beg the question” is a direct translation of the Latin “petitio principii”, and discussed its stricter sense as it is used in the fields of logic and law. As for the questionable sense of “inviting the question”, see my reply to Bryan’s post.





#211 03/30/00 04:56 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 6
B
Bryan Offline OP
stranger
OP Offline
stranger
B
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 6
I'm sorry to hear that the "linguistic descriptionists" have kidnapped Fowler! LOL

I agree that language changes, and that this is a source of wonder, and also often of improvement. But not every change is a good one, and there's nothing wrong with opposing a change for the worse, especially when there is still a chance to turn the tide against it.

I don't know much about current trends in linguistics, but "linguistic descriptionism" sounds like a psuedo-scientific effort to be evaluatively objective. In reality, every dictionary and manual of usage is normative. (We wouldn't need them if they weren't.) The descriptionists seem to have taken as their norm something like majority usage (or more likely the majority of written sources, or written sources that were in their database, or ...) and based their norm on that. I prefer to use a norm that weights more heavily the usage of those who are acknowledged to be good writers and eloquent speakers.

Oh, and I have contributed to several dictionaries and encyclopedias, so I "ought to garner a certain degree of credibility" myself. ;-)


#212 03/31/00 08:48 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
J
newbie
Offline
newbie
J
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 39
Hi Bryan, and thanks for responding. It seems we find ourselves facing each other across the traditional divide of lexicography, i.e. prescriptive vs. descriptive. I agree with you that our general English language dictionaries are “normative”. Even in these breakneck paced times, our language is still evolving very slowly, and so the snapshot of the language, as represented by the dictionary, remains de facto normative without actually striving to be. All modern dictionaries take the descriptive approach, reporting the language as it is actually used, and not as some elitist editor and his staff may arbitrarily decree to be standard. This is true of the American Heritage Dictionary, as well as the others, in spite of Heritage’s prescriptivist posturing.

Language is fundamentally a democratic phenomenon. Attempts to control it have always failed, miserably. The success or failure of any neologism is always tested in the crucible of demotic idiom. If a change is found to be useful, or attractive to the general speaker, it will continue to be used and eventually become standard. If not, it will have a shorter life. Ultimately, there is little anyone can do to control this process. Indeed, it is now felt that little need be done no matter how offensive or barbaric a new linguistic change may seem to the dons of academia or their proteges, who are usually inadequately informed to judge such a change objectively from within the context of their personal linguistic experience. The lexicographer’s role is therefore to remain steadfastly objective and to simply report how the language is being used by the general population. After more than two centuries of increasingly descriptivist dictionaries, this principle is now all but apodictic within the linguistic community. Unfortunately the lexicographer is often criticized and sometimes vilified by disgruntled people who feel passionately about their language, and insist that the dictionary use its influence to extirpate these barbarisms. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the experience of editor Philip Gove as portrayed in _The Story of Webster’s Third_, by Herbert Morton, which I found absorbing.

On the subject of language evolution and the natural laws that govern it, I would also recommend a little book by Charleton Laird, called _The Miracle of Language_. These books may be out of print but may be found through on-line used book sources (such as abebooks.com) or with the help of your local bouquiniste. Beware of other books with the same title as Laird’s. I would be interested in learning about your experiences Bryan, as a contributing lexicographer, e.g. which dictionary, when, etc. Would anyone care to comment on the new _Encarta World Dictionary of English_? In my opinion, it represents a new low in scholarship and lexicography, however boldly it parades the ephemera of the modern lexicon.



#213 04/02/00 08:59 PM
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 4
G
stranger
Offline
stranger
G
Joined: Mar 2000
Posts: 4
Much of this discussion can be rendered irrelevant once one realizes that words represent concepts, they are not concepts themselves, even in linguistic discussions. In order for a speaker and a listener to communicate effectively it is required that they share the same conceptual referents. Dictionaries provide a means of discerning the possible referents for any given word. Wars have been started and dinner parties ruined by misunderstandings. One man's nigger (as cheapskate) is other man's racial slur (as unworthy person, usually, but not always, black, negro, colored, etc.) to use a particularly odious, by politically correct standards, example.

Lexicography is forced to use descriptive definitions if its products are to have any value. There is no point in stating what a word ought to mean to persons who are already using it to mean something else. This defies common sense, semantics, logic and inhibits productive intellectual endeavor.

Should there remain any question about the difference between words and concepts, a study of sign languages, iconography and hieroglyphics should set things straight. (See also, pictograph, ideograph, symbol)

Next time, class, we'll take up syntax, declensions, mood and conjugations. NO! Leave your condoms at home!


Page 1 of 5 1 2 3 4 5

Moderated by  Jackie 

Link Copied to Clipboard
Forum Statistics
Forums16
Topics13,907
Posts228,517
Members9,162
Most Online3,341
Dec 9th, 2011
Newest Members
Doctor, Silverfox, Red_Canoe, Merchant7, crusoe66
9,162 Registered Users
Who's Online Now
1 members (A C Bowden), 87 guests, and 3 robots.
Key: Admin, Global Mod, Mod
Top Posters(30 Days)
Top Posters
wwh 13,858
Faldage 13,803
Jackie 11,613
tsuwm 10,542
LukeJavan8 9,869
AnnaStrophic 6,511
Wordwind 6,296
of troy 5,400
Disclaimer: Wordsmith.org is not responsible for views expressed on this site. Use of this forum is at your own risk and liability - you agree to hold Wordsmith.org and its associates harmless as a condition of using it.

Home | Today's Word | Yesterday's Word | Subscribe | FAQ | Archives | Search | Feedback
Wordsmith Talk | Wordsmith Chat

© 1994-2022 Wordsmith

Powered by UBB.threads™ PHP Forum Software 7.7.5