Open Tuesday Rant: I Beg You to Stop

James Scott Bell

All right, I want you all to stop it.

I’m not the Language Sheriff. Grammar was not my strongest subject in school. I doubt I can tell a gerund from a gerbil. But there are some obvious sins that are creeping into our mother tongue. And some of them are worth beating back with a stick.

This is one of them.

“Begs the question” does not mean “Invites the question.”

It doesn’t. No matter how many times you use it that way, no matter how many talking-heads-trying-to-sound-smart blabber it on TV. Whoever started this trend should be taken out back and slapped around with a copy of Strunk and White.

Begs the question is a fallacy of logic. “Begging” here does not mean “pleading.” It is an alternative use of the word, and it means to “assume the answer.” It’s a form of circular reasoning.

Professor: Make an argument that war is always wrong.

Student: War is always wrong because too many lives are lost.

Professor: That begs the question. You assume that loss of life is, ipso facto, wrong. But you have yet to prove that. Loss of life might very well be justified for a greater purpose. Try again.

Student: Will this be on the test?

That’s what begging the question means. So when I hear some White House correspondent tell the home studio, “The President has decided to visit the Gulf Coast again, which begs the question, Will that do anything to stop the leak?” I want to make him eat his microphone so he can’t do any more damage with it.

So that’s my rant. Do not, under any circumstances, use begs the question as invites the question.

Now it’s your turn. What language sins drive you batty?

41 thoughts on “Open Tuesday Rant: I Beg You to Stop

  1. The one I’ve noticed lately is using you’re and your interchangeably. Drives me bonkers. They’re not even close. But it’s not like it requires a great deal of smarts to figure out that you’re mean you are. If that doesn’t fit your sentence then don’t use the contraction.

    Okay, I feel better after getting that off my chest!

  2. James,
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a father of two young daughters who’re growing up amidst abbreviated everything, shortcut spellings, and an entirely different language in the texting world, it’s nice to know there are others out there who still remember the original rules of the English language. If only there were more Catholic school nuns out there to beat the bad habits out of you ๐Ÿ™‚

    I have a question I’ve been waiting for Open Tuesday for. In the MS I’m working on, my protagonist has to die in order for justice to be served. I know this breaks the thriller rule of the good guy needing to win since the reader has invested their time in him/her throughout the book. In my case the good guys do win, but at a cost to the main character. Are there times a situation like this would be justified or should I rework the ending (which in my opinion would be less effective) and have my protag live?

  3. I hate it when people say “literally” instead of “figuratively.” The most annoying use: I literally died.
    Well, if you did, you wouldn’t be talking to me.

  4. Matthew, the ending should be the one you feel right about in your gut. Unless you’re operating under etched-in-stone conventons (e.g., category romance) you can do what’s best for your particular story. Try it out on beta readers and see what they say.

  5. I have a question that seems to be coming up lately in writing blogs. I know my MC in romance needs to be likeable. But does she have to be totally likeable from the onset?
    Can she have some qualities that might be a little immature or not where we’d like her to be yet? Or would this totally turn off the reader? Thank you. I’m finding the fine line between what’s writable and making the character to be a normal person to be blurred.

  6. Jim, surly there are other ways of begging the question. And that’s my rant for today: the use of the word surly. Dump it from the vocabulary. When I see it I always wonder who the new character is

    “Surly you can’t be serious.”

    “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

  7. Terri, unlikeable traits in our main characters are the basis for compelling internal conflict. I’m not talking about picking their nose. But if they have dark demons to battle: drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., it makes them human and perhaps more believable. There’s only one Superman, and even he had his faults.

  8. Jim,
    Good point, well-made.
    As a physician, one of the errors that sets my teeth on edge is the confusion between “prostrate” and “prostate.” True, a digital exam of the latter might send a man into the former position, but otherwise they’re unrelated, and it’s not that difficult to tell the difference.

  9. I hate the use of verbed nouns like fisted. We use nouns as verbs frequently. Anchor is one example, so it may seem okay to say that a character fisted something, but it causes confusion in that it isn’t clear whether the character is hitting something with his fist, placing something in a fist or as some authors have used it, to ball a hand into a fist.

  10. “Having said that” or “That being said” – Do you (speaker or writer) think I’m a moron & need reminding?

    I enjoy writing dialogue but have a propensity to use words like so, that, well, just. I call it word-litter. Was – were – be – been, etc – passive voice alert!!! Describe action with active verbs. And similies (in large doses) drive me nuts.

    Wow! That felt pretty good.

  11. I love this post and the comments!

    I worked in a police department for ten years entering reports into the computer, so I’ve seen language and grammar mangled in every possible way. (I think I may have mangled it myself in that sentence!) Their, there, and they’re were always used interchangeably. The word its always had an apostrophe even when it shouldn’t. The worst part was I wasn’t allowed to correct any of it–I had to enter it exactly as it was written.

    One of my recent pet peeves is when someone uses THAT instead of WHO when referring to a person. For example, “The man that came to the house” when it should be “The man WHO came to the house.”

  12. Joyce, you’ve seen what cops do with the language. Lawyers aren’t off the hook, either, especially in court. Or their witnesses. There’s a transcript of an exchange between a lawyer and a witness who was shot during a bar fight.

    Lawyer: And were you shot in the fracas?

    Witness: No, I got shot right here in the front.

  13. Terri, no character should be flawless, but the reader should have a reason to cheer for the main character from the first introduction. Look at how Dickens handles his characters in Oliver Twist. When the Artful Dodger comes on the scene we would think that we would think bad of him, since he is a pickpocket and leads Oliver into a life of crime, yet we like him. If you look closely, the reason we like him is because he offered shelter to Oliver. A character doing something good before we reveal his bad side pays huge dividends in getting the reader to like the character.

  14. You’re right, Timothy. Perhaps the ultimate flawed character out there right now is Dexter Morgan of the Showtime series and the bestsellers by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter is a blood spatter expert working for Miami-Dade Homicide. He’s also a serial killer. He’s got a boatload of demons to deal with but we still cheer him on.

  15. I work in a software company, with software engineers. They make verbs out of nouns constantly, and when they need an “undo,” they just “un” everything. “Unhide” was my favorite example.

    Some of them also willfully ignore spelling problems–despite repeated coaching, one engineer is unable to spell “avaliable” correctly. But the best is the approximate words they come up with. Hands down, the single best example ever, when the same guy wanted to tell me how the situation had been made worse, was “exasterbate.”

    We’re still laughing.

  16. Another one that I’ve noticed is people using is “I could care less” when they really mean “I couldn’t care less.” The former means that you actually do care and that it is possible to care less. The latter means that you have no feelings for whatever-it-is at all, which I think is what people mean to imply. Loved the post and enjoyed reading all the comments.

  17. Oh, I LOVE this post! First, thank you for educating me; I’ve always used the beg the question term incorrectly. I will be sure to fix that in my current WIP.

    Like Tammy, I also work in the software industry, where we make up new terms on a daily basis. I cringe in sympathy.

    Here’s my list:

    “alls”… There is no S on this word. Why must people say, “Alls you gotta do …” ????

    “Irregardless” Is this even a word? What’s wrong with “regardless”?

    The worst of all is the Paul McCartney song… I understand poetic license, but really… “In this ever changing world in which we live in”… *gags*

    End rant.

    Thank you for this.

  18. Matthew- that’s a tough one. I agree, run it past a few beta readers. Generally speaking, killing off your hero is something to be avoided in the first book.

    A year and a half after the Bush administration, I’m still hearing “nuke-ular” on a regular basis. Please tell me that particular mispronunciation hasn’t become a permanent part of our lexicon.

  19. I dunno, Brad. Are you sure there hasn’t been any ex post facto revisionism?

    The way the lyric makes sense is “But if this ever changing world in which we live in MAKES you…”

    Who knows? All I know is It makes me want to go and listen to that Neil Diamond song about Reverend Blue Jeans.

  20. Wow. I’m behind the power curve here.

    I think that the mispronunciation of “nuclear” (nucular), is of the same innocent vein as those who call real estate agents realators instead of realtors.

    As for the other stuff–including the begging of questions–I remember when gay meant happy. Ages ago, groovy meant full-of-grooves, and cool meant of low temperature. That these words have evolved does not mean that they are improperly used, does it?

    To me, the popular use of “begging the question” has nothing to do with the the term’s use as a logical fallacy. It is simply an evolved use of the phrase.

    John Gilstrap

  21. No way, Gilstrap. A word here and there can evolve, but you can’t take a phrase that cannot mean something and just start using it that way because it sounds good. That will kill the language faster than Jonathan Grave kills bad guys. I’m going to be reading Hostage Zero very carefully now, pal,

  22. When my husband talks about a company being ‘headquartered’ somewhere it drives me nuts. In the same vein, when I hear him tell someone on the phone that he doesn’t have the ‘bandwidth for that right now’ I cringe. Corporations have mangled enough of the English language!

  23. If yinz guys want to hear some really bizarre pronunciations and words no one else ever heard of, come to Pittsburgh!

    Word verification: crultred. What we ain’t in da ‘burgh.

  24. “You can’t take a phrase that cannot mean something and just start using it that way because it sounds good.”

    Hmm. Maybe this discussion has jumped the shark or James, did you mean that to be tongue in cheek?

  25. Here’s my favorite which comes from working in medical settings for years. Richard Mabry can appreciate this one too! Which reminds me of to and too.:)

    Many of the nursing students I counsel get this wrong!

    patients- as in receiving medical care.
    patience-as in waiting to hear back from your agent or editor.

  26. Like any bad habit, it’s something I’ve tried to beat that others persist in. Improper comma usage is probably my number one complaint. There seems to be a need out there to sprinkle commas across the page like pepper on a salad. Missing articles, especially the, is another pet peeve. It makes [the] sentence sound very ESL to me.

  27. Patty already shared my favorite language faux pas – irregardless! So I’ll share a couple of others:
    I suppose a mute point, as opposed to a moot point, is one that can’t be spoken? And as much as I love the French language – indeed I’m currently working through the Rosetta Stone exercises – I’d like to request that we stop using the term hors d’oeuvre. It’s difficult to properly pronounce, impossible for Americans to spell, and the English language has a perfectly suitable word – appetizer – to use in its place.

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