Listeners Are Begging Us To Bag ‘Begs The Question’

Every time someone says on NPR that something “begs the question,” we get complaints from listeners.

They point to the phrase’s original meaning — to “pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled” (Merriam-Webster).  The LawProse blog notes, for example, that you’ve begged the question if you say a defendant is guilty “because he is charged with a crime.”  That’s ignoring the fact that being charged isn’t the same as being guilty. You’ve engaged in a circular argument — the defendant is guilty because he’s been charged and he’s charged because he’s guilty.

But over time, “begs the question” has been increasingly used when the speaker means to say that a question has been raised. That’s where we and other news outlets go wrong, listeners say.

A typical example (from Time): “All of the hype surrounding the shiny new additions to the Apple product line beg the question: What happened to the hype surrounding the last shiny new iPhones we ran out to purchase a mere 365 days ago …?”

This misuse of the term is by no means a new issue. Check out this New York Times post from 2008: “Begging the Question, Again.”

In the past year, the library’s Candice Kortkamp tells us, “beg” or “begs the question” was heard on NPR 11 times. Correspondents or hosts accounted for five of the instances. Four of those five staff-generated cases were in scripts or recorded conversations, not during a live two-way. Only one person, Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley got the “begs the question” reference right.

It’s worth noting, as we said last week in the semi-controversial “memmo” about garnish vs. garnishee, that English is a living language.

The Grammar Girl points out that “when thousands of people use a word or phrase the ‘wrong’ way, and almost nobody is using it the ‘right’ way, it’s a clear sign that the meaning is changing.”

The case could be made that we could give in to the crowd and go begging, so to speak.

But there’s also a simple solution. Substitute the word “raises” for “begs” and you’ve not only avoided inciting the grammarians, you’ve also used a word that makes the point more effectively.

Plus, while rhetorical flourishes are nice, it is NPR practice to speak and write clearly. Perhaps, you might say, to avoid unnecessary garnishing.

(Memmos; Sept. 22, 2014)

September 22, 2014

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