Begging The Question
February 8, 2008 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I don’t understand the term “begs the question.” I know I use it incorrectly—or so I’ve been told—but I don’t know what I’m supposedly doing wrong. Can you explain? The Morning News' The Non-Expert tackles "the phrase that nobody understands."
posted by amyms (188 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This begs the question... why does anyone care?
posted by phrontist at 11:14 PM on February 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry I only take grammatical advice from dinosaurs.
posted by churl at 11:21 PM on February 8, 2008 [13 favorites]


Missing two obvious links:

1. Wikipedia

2. Beg the Question.info
posted by milnak at 11:26 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


A friend recommended this book, which I put on my Amazon wish list, so I guess I am begging for "Begging the Question".
posted by Schmucko at 11:26 PM on February 8, 2008


Because it's interesting, phrontist.
Check here for a past commentary on the phrase.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 11:27 PM on February 8, 2008


It means what people use it to mean. This is such a boring debate.
posted by Falconetti at 11:29 PM on February 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


I know, that was a poor attempt at irony.
posted by phrontist at 11:29 PM on February 8, 2008


churl writes "Sorry I only take grammatical advice from dinosaurs."

LATER: THE FACE OR PRESCRIPTIVE LANGUAGE.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:30 PM on February 8, 2008


Actually, that essay in Consider the Lobster almost had me sold on prescriptivism. Almost. Then I saw the logical fallacy: he was begging the question.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:31 PM on February 8, 2008


Fuck. Of.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:31 PM on February 8, 2008


I think it's really queer the way some people get upset at the changing meaning of certain words and phrases. Life would be so much more gay if everyone would just change with the times.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:32 PM on February 8, 2008 [28 favorites]


*suspects that most of the posters here didn't read the first link* lol
posted by amyms at 11:35 PM on February 8, 2008


Oh, good. I just wanted to be sure someone linked to the Dinosaur comic.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:36 PM on February 8, 2008


This begs the question... why does anyone care?

The reason it's important to philosophers is because it's the ultimate putdown. If you accuse someone of question-begging, what you're saying is that they're a shitty philosopher, that they've spent a bunch of time and energy going nowhere at all, but they're too thick to realize it. Philosophers need a terse way to communicate this, because it happens all the time. Now, "circular argument" performs adequately as a substitute in some cases, but it's awkward in others--you can't smoothly say someone is arguing circularly. So, yeah, it seems pedantic of philosophers to run around correcting people's idiom usage all the time, but they're doing it because they're attempting (futilely, it seems) to protect something uniquely valuable and necessary, not to demonstrate how smart they are.
posted by Nahum Tate at 11:49 PM on February 8, 2008 [25 favorites]


Irregardless of your opinion and for all intensive purposes, mediocrity takes the day.
posted by oncogenesis at 11:53 PM on February 8, 2008 [17 favorites]


If you’re more of a visual learner, I’ve included a diagrammed version of this type of argument

HI-LARIOUS
posted by mwhybark at 11:56 PM on February 8, 2008


Here's the thing-- I think that I am primarily a descriptivist with respect to common usage, and I believe it is an inherent property of language to change, mutate and evolve. I do get annoyed when people think they are using a word or phrase "correctly," when in fact they are not, especially when they are attempting to invoke authority. When someone is involved in a discussion/debate/argument, and they incorrectly use "begging the question," which is a clearly defined term for a specific type of rhetorical fallacy, then any ethos they intended to marshal is lost for me.
posted by exlotuseater at 11:57 PM on February 8, 2008 [11 favorites]


Beggers can't be choosers, but can they be questioners?

And anyone who expects The Morning News' Non-Expert to provide useful advice must be new to the Intarwebs.

T-Rex is the face of prescriptive language? MetaFilter's Own languagehat would challenge that claim, but then he'd probably get his head bitten off (Is that correct? "bitten off"? It doesn't sound right...)
posted by wendell at 12:00 AM on February 9, 2008


Is that correct? "bitten off"? It doesn't sound right...

Here in the sticks, my neighbors say "bited clean off!"
posted by amyms at 12:12 AM on February 9, 2008


Come here a minute.
posted by ninjew at 12:17 AM on February 9, 2008


Next week: ironic.
posted by knave at 12:24 AM on February 9, 2008


Honestly, if I saw a bum with a sign reading, instead of: PLEASE GIVE, ANYTHING WILL HELP, VET, GOD BLESS YOU...

"I am Begging the Question." he would get five dollars.
posted by kozad at 12:25 AM on February 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


What irritates me about this is that I would prefer that the passage of time make the English language richer.

We already have "raises the question". There's no need to make "begs the question" mean exactly the same thing. Now, rather than having two phrases, each meaning their own thing, we have two phrases that both mean the same thing.

Sigh.
posted by Jpfed at 12:33 AM on February 9, 2008 [11 favorites]



T-Rex is the face of prescriptive language? MetaFilter's Own languagehat would challenge that claim, but then he'd probably get his head bitten off (Is that correct? "bitten off"? It doesn't sound right...)


*languagehat* is the face of prescriptive language? Methinks you haven't been paying attention.
posted by nasreddin at 12:35 AM on February 9, 2008


From Wikipedia:

More recently, to beg the question has been used by some as a synonym for "to raise the question", or to indicate that "the question really ought to be addressed". For example, "This year's budget deficit is half a trillion dollars. This begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?" This usage is often criticized by proponents of the traditional meaning, but has nonetheless come into sufficiently widespread use that it is now the most common use of the term. The phrases circular reasoning, circular logic, and circular arguments have come to be used in places where logicians would tend to use "beg the question".

If the new usage is more common than the traditional usage, then it is the new correct one. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use the traditional usage in circles where people would clearly understand it (like in a philosophical discussion involving logical principles).

With newer (and more self-explanatory) phrases available, there's no strong reason to use the traditional term. It has become largely a historical artifact.

Also, the traditional usage seems to stand alone, and is not transitive like the modern use. If you follow "begs the question" with the question that it raises, then it is clearly the modern use. If you just say "it begs the question", referring to a logical argument, then it would either be interpreted as the traditional usage, or the listener (being unacquainted with the traditional use) would respond with "that begs what question?", giving you an opportunity to flaunt your pompous mastery of obscure constructions.
posted by strangeguitars at 12:36 AM on February 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


If questions were horses, then beggars would ride.
posted by Poolio at 12:40 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]




I particularly enjoyed his diagram of circular reasoning.
posted by spiderskull at 12:51 AM on February 9, 2008


@Nahum Tate: So, yeah, it seems pedantic of philosophers to run around correcting people's idiom usage all the time, but they're doing it because they're attempting (futilely, it seems) to protect something uniquely valuable and necessary, not to demonstrate how smart they are.

It's futile. The "incorrect" usage is so widespread that one has to assume that it's being used to mean "raises the question" in just about any conversation that doesn't also include mention of Occam's razor and the phrase "denying the antecedent".

Other ultimately-doomed attempts to get non-pedants to use "correct" terminology: "ironic" and "champing at the bit", and for you nerds in the audience: "hacker" and "GNU/Linux". And don't even start with how I'm "using" quotation marks.
posted by robla at 12:54 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


This issue only gets raised because a bunch of armchair-philosophers / debating-team types are offended that people are stealing their special little group of words.

I mean, I know what it feels like. As an ecologist - that is, a biologist who studies the distribution and abundance of organisms - I sometimes hear people use the term "ecologist" to mean "environmentalist". For some people, in different fields than science, an "ecologist" is someone who rides a bike to work, buys organic veggies, and recycles their glass. Yes, I know it's frustrating, but does it really affect me in any way worth shouting about? Hardly.

For the record, I don't believe "raises the question" and "begs the question" mean exactly the same thing, anyway.

"Raises the question" suggests, to me, that some new question has been generated from what has just been discussed.

"Begs the question" suggests that some important question wasn't addressed in what has just been discussed and should be.

It's a pretty subtle difference, but I think the phrase does have unique meaning.
posted by Jimbob at 1:11 AM on February 9, 2008


Wow, that guy really knows how to write filler for the paste-up... oh wait, he's writing for the web.
posted by XMLicious at 1:20 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Begging the question is stupid, why would you want to use it?
posted by blue_beetle at 1:26 AM on February 9, 2008


Serious question here:
So, if I want to use the phrase correctly, I cannot actually quote any particular question which might be begged, right?

In other words, the following use is OK:
"Man, you're totally begging the question, dude."

And the following is never OK:
"Man, you're totally begging the question: (insert question)?"

Right?
posted by sour cream at 1:40 AM on February 9, 2008


Right.

When he makes a circular argument, you say "That's begging the question." Period.
posted by knave at 1:44 AM on February 9, 2008


sour cream- if you use "begging the question" the way philosophers do, then you are never begging any particular question. You're just begging the question.

However, because of how most people talk, "Man, you're totally begging the question: (insert question)" is now the "correct" usage. I suppose it means "Man, you really make someone want to ask the question (insert question)".
posted by Jpfed at 1:46 AM on February 9, 2008


I am still trying to figure out how WTF became FTW!
posted by srboisvert at 2:05 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Relativism and descriptivism are all very well. However, if someone asks the meaning of a phrase and your response is "Dude, it means whatever we want it to mean" may it not have gone a little too far?
posted by Phanx at 2:15 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Man, you're totally begging the question: (insert question)" is now the "correct" usage. I suppose it means "Man, you really make someone want to ask the question (insert question)".

No, it means "begging [the asking of] the question". It's the other usage that's a bonkers nonsensical idiom.
posted by cillit bang at 2:16 AM on February 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh come on, the triangular argument thing was chuckle worthy.
posted by fullerine at 2:21 AM on February 9, 2008


"Begging the Question" used to mean "raising the question" has been used so often in the last few years that I ... I ... God! II've been stunned every goddamn time I've seen that misused. This is a logical reference, folks! Okay? No?
All right. The language belongs to the people. If you (and not just those a-hole newsclowns) wish to shift the meaning of this CRISPLY CLEAR PHRASE, then I submit.
I am a commie.
The People rule.
posted by CCBC at 2:35 AM on February 9, 2008


Jesus, I should have edited better on preview.
posted by CCBC at 2:36 AM on February 9, 2008


It's rad the someone registered begthequestion.info and put up a site on there decrying the bastardization of the phrase. The internet is, indeed, full of magic.
posted by ph00dz at 3:20 AM on February 9, 2008


This issue only gets raised because a bunch of armchair-philosophers / debating-team types are offended that people are stealing their special little group of words.

I am about the furthest thing from an armchair-philosopher or a debating-team type, but the thing that gets me about the Great Beg-the-Question Shift is that the old usage is something that I would have a use for all the time. Regular people beg the question (old usage) every day, and it would be nice if there was a handy phrase to call them on their stupidity. "You're totally using circular logic!" just doesn't cut it.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:57 AM on February 9, 2008


But regular people don't really understand the put-down either.
posted by psmealey at 4:23 AM on February 9, 2008


23skidoo: "You're totally begging the question!"
regular person: "I'm begging the question... what."
23skidoo: "You're begging the question."
regular person: "I'm begging what question?"
23skidoo: "You know. Begging the question."
regular person: "Which question am I begging, exactly?"
23skiddo: "You're using circular logic."
regular person: "That just doesn't cut it."
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 4:25 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


If the new usage is more common than the traditional usage, then it is the new correct one.

Fine, strangeguitars. Soon I expect to see a Webster's Dictionary definition:

doggie-dog
(adj) Competitive. It's a doggie-dog world.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 4:46 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


We have "beaten this to death" many times before.

Triple, at least.
posted by caddis at 4:53 AM on February 9, 2008


I have never heard anyone use "doggie-dog" in that way. Or at all for that matter. But if, in fifty years, it becomes common usage, then yes, I would expect to see that in the dictionary.

Every generation will have its older traditionalists and academics who say things should remain the same, and they may win a few of those battles. Every generation will have its younger crowd and its "regular people" who will invent new phrases or misuse existing phrases. Most of their inventions and misuses will fade away quickly. A few will stick. That's how it works. If not for that process, there would be no such thing as language.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 5:07 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did everyone in this thread think this was AskMe, or what?

Good post, amyms. Funny.
posted by rokusan at 5:15 AM on February 9, 2008


Loch Ness: Of course, you're right, damn you. ;-)

But it bugs me that people who don't read can change the course of my beloved language. Ah, but what can we do? It's a doggie-dog world.

Actually, that wasn't so hard. I'm actually starting to like it. It's not so bad. Doggie-dog. Aren't we all doggie-dogs? It's easy. Dogs are friendly. But...no...I love English more. I can't help it.

Je ne capitule pas!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 5:23 AM on February 9, 2008


Turtles, I think there is value in both sides of the equation. If everything was all the way traditionalist English would be a dead language like Latin. If everything was all the way do-what-you-like, nobody would know what the hell anyone else was talking about. We need people to keep things in line and we need people to cross the line.

I haven't yet given up on "I couldn't care less" (I think the common usage is becoming "I could care less," which doesn't make sense) but I think the battle for "begging the question" has been lost. I would argue that it was on shaky ground to begin with, as the common usage strikes me as more sensible than the "correct" usage.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 5:43 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting that, the ethos of descriptivism having spread, a variety of people now equate it with a strict democratic valuation: what is most common is correct. That seems like a complementary fallacy to prescriptivism. I think what's more reasonable to say (as others have implied already) is that "to beg the question" now has two acceptable uses, one of which is more technical, the other more commonly used.

Exlotuseater subtly conveys that there are correctness conditions for the phrase which can still make someone look stupid when the use it, if they are using it in an incorrect context. That also seems reasonable.
posted by adoarns at 5:51 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Loch Ness: I coudn't agree more. (Or maybe I should start saying "I could agree more"?). Anyway, you make eminent sense; I think you are a smidge more on the side of the descriptivists than I am but that is probably sensible. Thanks.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:00 AM on February 9, 2008


I'm hot cause I'm fly. You ain't cause you not.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:10 AM on February 9, 2008 [7 favorites]


"Dog Eat Dog" is the best AC/DC song from their pre-double-entendre period.
posted by popechunk at 6:11 AM on February 9, 2008


23skidoo: "You're totally begging the question!"
regular person: "I'm begging the question... what."
23skidoo: "You're begging the question."
regular person: "I'm begging what question?"
23skidoo: "You know. Begging the question."
regular person: "Which question am I begging, exactly?"
23skiddo: "You're using circular logic."
regular person: "That just doesn't cut it."


Errrr, not everyone who thinks the old usage is useful is some sort of passive-aggressive prescriptivist. When I encounter a situation where I'd like to use "beg the question", I usually just explain the whole concept.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:20 AM on February 9, 2008


I was just playing, 23skidoo. No offense intended.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 6:29 AM on February 9, 2008


I just like to say "beg."
posted by JanetLand at 6:31 AM on February 9, 2008


Linguist : descriptivist :: prescriptivist : petty martinet and insufferable prat
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:39 AM on February 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


From the linked essay:

since I wholeheartedly disagree with (read: do not understand) the tenets of prescriptive linguistics

There is no such thing as "prescriptive linguistics"; it would be like "creationist science." FAIL.

Since we're redoing this incredibly important issue, which we've driven into the ground and beaten to death years ago, I'll repost my stock response:
This is one of those issues that is catnip to the adolescent language-lover but which a sensible person grows out of. I too used to enjoy tormenting people with the "truth" about the phrase, but I eventually realized that, whatever its origins in philosophy and petitio principii, I had never seen or heard the phrase used "correctly" except by people making a point of doing so (cf. "hoi polloi"); in current English usage, "beg the question" means 'raise the question,' and that's that. I got over it, and so should Safire. (An anguished appraisal by the earnest Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ends by saying the phrase is "better avoided altogether"; like Fowler's similar recommendation concerning "hoi polloi," this counsel of despair is a sign that the language has sailed on, leaving wistful archaists treading water and clutching at the stern.)

I might also point out that my own brief post about this delightful cartoon got the following response from an actual philosopher:
As a philosopher by profession, I can confirm that begging the question is very much in active use as a technical term, and also that we get very annoyed when people [mis]appropriate it.

Like many other terms in logic, as also in rhetoric, it has a winding and obscure trajectory through ancient and mediaeval times to the present day. In my opinion the use of such ill-bred terms renders needlessly difficult the teaching of informal logic (or critical reasoning as it gets called - as if there were any other sort of reasoning). Begging the question deserves to be misused, because it is a stupidly misleading term in the first place. [Emphasis added—LH]

My approach is never to use it in ordinary discourse, and in fact hardly ever to use it in technical contexts either, because it refers to a theoretically problematic notion anyway. In ordinary discourse I prefer to speak of raising a question; and in technical contexts I prefer to speak of circular arguments.
So there you go: you can talk about petitio principii or circular arguments if you want to be philosophically precise; the only reason for using this absurd phrase is to be pedantic.
Now can we talk about circumcising cats or something?
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on February 9, 2008 [9 favorites]


Actually I know quite a few very intelligent people that use this expression incorrectly. I think it's quite an elegant expression so I'm happy to gently correct folks when they get it wrong.

The same cannot be said, however, for words like "ironically" and "literally". Only dumb fucks get those ones wrong.
posted by Flem Snopes at 6:52 AM on February 9, 2008


Many thanks for your own display of pedantry and condescension, languagehat.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:53 AM on February 9, 2008


So, if I want to use the phrase correctly, I cannot actually quote any particular question which might be begged, right?

If you want to use the English language nicely, the right thing to do is never use it in either form.

In its technical debating/philosophical sense, it's pointless jargon. There is no reason not to simply and clearly state "You're assuming what you claim to prove" or "That's circular reasoning." "Begs the question" barely even saves any space, and it doesn't express any concept that's difficult to get across in standard English.

In its nontechnical sense, even if that's now descriptively "correct," it's still a horrible cliche and should be avoided for that reason.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:57 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


It is what it is.
posted by Balisong at 6:59 AM on February 9, 2008


Actually I know quite a few very intelligent people that use this expression incorrectly. I think it's quite an elegant expression so I'm happy to gently correct folks when they get it wrong.

Actually I know quite a few very intelligent people who do not understand the expression "incorrect." When it comes to language, "correct" means "what (the majority of) native speakers of the language say." Claiming that some obscure usage that is called "stupidly misleading" even by one of the specialists for whom it is supposedly a vital technical tool is the only correct usage is, well, incorrect. Stop misinforming people, however gently.

Many thanks for your own display of pedantry and condescension, languagehat.

You do not appear to understand the word "pedantry." Pedantry is insisting on a stupidly misleading usage that is understood by almost no one; I am simply pointing that out. If you don't like it, tough luck; join the creationists complaining about the "pedantry and condescension" of scientists.
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay, I'll give you this one, languagehat: in this instance, I was being the pedant by arguing for a perhaps outmoded use of the word. So that was incorrect. My comment, though, was motivated by my opinion that your tone is smug, assured, and condescending.

No I beg you to cease this argument forthwith, good sir, or I shall be forced to smack you smartly upon the cheek with my dove-grey kid glove.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:08 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


"No" ... ruined!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:09 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regarding the actual content of the post: enjoyable.

Regarding pedantry: The past couple years, (perhaps since Lemony Snicket used it in the title of his 12th Unfortunate Events book?), I've seen many people use the word penultimate, seemingly meaning "ultimate" or perhaps "super duper the most ultimate ever." I've seen it on this website and others too many times to think it a fluke.

It makes me wonder if it will pass, or if enough people have started using it wrong that in a generation or so, there will actually be a "3 : ultimate" in the dictionary after it. Hmm.
posted by lampoil at 7:10 AM on February 9, 2008


I was clearly joking, languagehat, the second half of my comment should have tipped you off.

Also, you're a bully. Neener neener.
posted by Flem Snopes at 7:17 AM on February 9, 2008


Being the penultimate sibling in my family...well, yeah, I've noticed that as well.

I think a main reason "begs the question" is getting so much misuse in everyday language is that the original usage is a bit beyond most people's experience outside of Philosophy 101 in college, yet it fits the everyday happenstance where a question naturally arises from some discussion or situation. Indeed, I choose to use instead "...so the question arises, (question goes here)," but I know I'm struggling against the tide.

Language just keeps on changing. Nobody cares much if you choose to deftly split an infinitive anymore, either.
posted by pax digita at 7:28 AM on February 9, 2008


I'm in agreement, pax digita, and the example you cite is proof of my own overly pedantic nature. The reason, as I understand, that the split infinitive was historically proscribed was that certain scholars felt that English should adhere to Latin, in which split infinitive is impossible because, like modern French, the infinitive was contained in a single word.

So I'd agree that it does not make sense to adhere to archaic usages when they don't make sense. Which, I admit, "begging the question" doesn't, other than in very specific academic usages. Another one is "forte," pronounced inthe modern world, "fortay," which was not how it was originally pronounced and which I have resisted, but really for no good reason other than my own smug, superior satisfaction.

I will not, though, give up on the muddling of "imply" and "infer." These are words with distinct, useful, opposite meanings. This distinction should not be lost.

So I yield on "begging the question." Languagehat: are you happy?
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:39 AM on February 9, 2008


This situations is begging for the following question to be answered

I think this best approximates its colloquial usage, slightly different from "raising the question". It's like a contraction without the those hard-to-draw apostrophes.
posted by device55 at 7:54 AM on February 9, 2008


I think the non expert is delmoi.
posted by nax at 7:58 AM on February 9, 2008


HOT TEENS ARE BEGGING THE QUESTION RIGHT NOW!
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:04 AM on February 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


It makes me wonder if it will pass, or if enough people have started using it wrong that in a generation or so, there will actually be a "3 : ultimate" in the dictionary after it. Hmm.

I'm afraid there will. (Just because I understand the inevitability of language change doesn't mean I always like it.)

I was clearly joking, languagehat

Oops—sorry!
*lashes self with a sentence fragment*

Languagehat: are you happy?

Yes, and I'm impressed with your ability to climb down from a wobbly branch. It ain't easy to do, as I know all too well, being prone to branch-climbing myself. Kudos. (Which is not a plural, dammit!)
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on February 9, 2008


languagehat: nicely played, sir! Regards.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:17 AM on February 9, 2008


Deep down, you're a dirty little linguist who loves begging the question, don't you?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:24 AM on February 9, 2008


When it comes to language, "correct" means "what (the majority of) native speakers of the language say."

Would the majority of language users agree with this definition?
posted by washburn at 8:33 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yes! Fine! I admit it. I have a looksie. I staunch the blood and flaunt the rules. Now my secret is revealed. Are you happy, Mr. Blatcher?!!!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:35 AM on February 9, 2008


mwhybark writes "If you’re more of a visual learner, I’ve included a diagrammed version of this type of argument

"HI-LARIOUS"


Yep, best use of a diagram I've seen in a while.
posted by Mitheral at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2008


Folks, it's a bad term. The 'real' meaning of 'begging the question' is entirely at odds with the meaning of the words as used as a phrase. "Begging the question", to any normal English user, is a short form of "begs for the question".

So, of course the damn meaning is changing -- it's becoming what the words actually say, not what some philosophers would like it to be.

Next time you want to name something, philosophers, use a good phrase that parses to mean what you want it to mean. If you redefine common words and phrases to mean other things, don't be shocked when people use the words as they were originally taught to.
posted by Malor at 8:44 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a philosophy TA and grad student, the only times when I expect the phrase to be used in its technical sense is when I'm teaching or engaged in an explicit philosophical discussion of the soundness of an argument. Short of that, I never have any problem when people use it in its less technical sense because I'm usually quite sure of the meaning that they wish to convey. I generally have no inclination to stifle the flow of a discussion I'm having or overhearing to bring up some technical distinction that is of no clear relevance to the conversation. As long as we're able to communicate effectively, all is well with me.
posted by inconsequentialist at 8:55 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fact: if you attempt to dodge a question by insisting further debate on the subject take place in some inhospitable change of venue, e.g. a swamp, it is known as "bogging the question".
posted by cortex at 8:57 AM on February 9, 2008


You likes that? You want to boldly go where language gets worser, don't you?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:59 AM on February 9, 2008


I thought bogging the question was proposing in the shitter.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a professional writer, I don't much care about "correct" usage (e.g. rules laid down from some authority) or the descriptive vs. prescriptive debate (though I completely agree with languagehat).

I care about what image -- if any -- a phrase evokes in the general reader's mind. Phrases are tools for evoking images. Everything else be damned, including origin, history and correctness. In fact, the ony reason I care about spelling and grammar is because, in general, if I don't follow a standard, my deviation will distract the reader from seeing the image I'm trying to evoke:

"Sally hit her camel" evokes an image. So does "Sally hitting her cammell," but I'd worry that the reader would get so caught up in the errors, he wouldn't imagine the poor camel's fate.

We already have "raises the question". There's no need to make "begs the question" mean exactly the same thing.

Those two phrases evoke different images, at least in my mind. Raising and begging are not the same thing. If your behavior raises a question, I might ignore the question. If your behavior begs a question, it will be much harder to ignore. (I keep imaging that relentless begger that Eric Idle plays in "The Life of Brian.")

As with my grammar example, I might worry a little about distracting readers who have the technical meaning of "beg the question" stuck in their heads. Such readers might get so obsessed with the error, they'd be unable to visualize anything related to the strong and lovely verb "beg." But I wager those readers are a tiny fraction of the population. Unless I'm writing a philosophy book, I wouldn't worry much about them.

But...

In the end, I avoid "begs the question" (used in the non-technical sense), because I fear it's over-used. In other words, it's a cliche. I avoid cliches for the same reason I do everything when I write: because, through repetition, they have lost the power to evoke sharp images.

But it IS possible to use "begs the question" in the everyday sense, without being a moron who doesn't know any better. If I wasn't worried about cliche, I would use it KNOWING its techincal meaning. It would be a conscious choice.
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fact: if you attempt to dodge a question by insisting further debate on the subject take place in some inhospitable change of venue, e.g. a swamp, it is known as "bogging the question".

If you discuss it here, it's called "blogging the question."
posted by grumblebee at 9:03 AM on February 9, 2008


Go ahead, beg the question.

But please try not to bugger it.
posted by notyou at 9:11 AM on February 9, 2008


grumblebee: Now I have the opportunity to ask a writer something I've always wondered about. What do you do when you want a character to say something that indicates he's uneducated, but that same thing would make you cringe in real lifei if you said it? I don't mean something in vernacular that would be known to be used by a character in that class; rather, let's say, a character trying to be smart who says "for all intensive purposes." Or "tow the line." I read enough--I read a lot--to know that authors sometimes make mistakes that reveal their ignorance of the language. (Note: I make many such mistakes). But I was wondering how I could best put words in a character's mouth that were not so obviously wrong as to be my creation, but might be subtle enough that a reader might say "does that author really not know the difference between imply and infer?"
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:22 AM on February 9, 2008


In the end, I avoid "begs the question"

In the same way, "forte" has been removed from my spoken vocabulary, because I pronounce it without the "ay" and then am looked upon as some sort of retard.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:33 AM on February 9, 2008


T: Many thanks for your own display of pedantry and condescension, languagehat.
L: You do not appear to understand the word "pedantry." Pedantry is....

Printed out and pasted on my wall.
posted by rokusan at 9:34 AM on February 9, 2008 [4 favorites]


La, la, la... I like to over-pronounce the T in the word often when I'm being pompous. It makes me sound smarterer.

Anyone? Anyone?
posted by rokusan at 9:35 AM on February 9, 2008


I love watching these threads. Also, I just read the entire wikipedia article on split infinitives and thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:40 AM on February 9, 2008


Turtles... why shouldn't you pronounce the "ay" in forte? I'm a classically trained musician, and at every single master class or symphony concert I ever participated in the instructor or conductor pronounced the "ay."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:42 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like to give penultimatums to people because everyone deserves another chance at meeting my final position.
posted by srboisvert at 9:59 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Baby_Balrog: There is a distinction between forte as derived from Italian and forte as derived from French. The Italian forte comes from the Latin fortis, simply meaning strong, and has two syllables. The French forte comes from fort, meaning a strong or (ahem) fortified place, and has one syllable.

Of course, distinguishing between the two is the absolute height of pedantry these days, since virtually everyone makes a show of pronouncing the second syllable. It's an example of hyperforeignism.
posted by jedicus at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


When it comes to language, "correct" means "what (the majority of) native speakers of the language say."

Hm. The Native speakers qualification gets us on a slippery slope in a world where English is fast becoming the second language and lingua franca of choice. Something to think about.

Also- it seems sort of had cheese on non-native speakers who go to all the effort of learning the language "properly" only to be told that the received wisdom is more of a guideline than a rule, and that - wait for it - some illiterate valley girls have more say on what is correct than, say, a foreign born college English professor who has spent years studying the history and literature of the language and even written some well received novels in that language.

I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but the question remains - what do we teach our children? Do we correct their amusing solecisms or do we ignore them in faith that the future belongs to them, valley girl speak and all? I've asked before and not really gotten a good answer, but do we do the inner city child any favors by tolerating ghetto talk instead of teaching standard English? Cuts down on the career opportunities, for one thing, as earlier immigrants well knew.

I'm not suggesting that we insist on outmoded patterns, or reject useful neologism- as you say, it won't work anyway. But a little bit of prescriptivism could make a world of difference to those looking for some guidance, and I would rather that guidance come from a serious student. Sometimes even from the hat.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:27 AM on February 9, 2008


roolz arr ment too be brohkin. Langwaj iz kahnstantlee eevalvin. How evarr, no roolz meenz yood git stuck wit diss --or worse. So we should forever effort a balance.

I think if one is a philosopher, using 'begs the question' incorrectly should be a punishable offense, the punishment being decided by other philosophers, and probably involving some level of shunning.

I think if one is not a philosopher, use 'begs the question' as it would work to communicate to those around you. That is after all, how language evolves.

The phrase 'begs the question' has mutated in usage and function. This is evidence that Laurie was right. Whether or not Bill was right remains to be seen.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:51 AM on February 9, 2008


"When it comes to language, "correct" means "what (the majority of) native speakers of the language say"

To be fair, I'd change 'correct' to 'acceptable.'
posted by ZachsMind at 10:56 AM on February 9, 2008


After reading this thread, I've decided I will *continue* to use the more recent definition of the phrase. When and if someone ever challenges me on it, though, I will be prepared. When he turns his nose up at me, I'll turn mine right back up at him, and proudly state, "I'm not using the classical meaning; I'm using the vulgate." That ought to make his head asplode.
posted by Doohickie at 11:07 AM on February 9, 2008


Turtles... why shouldn't you pronounce the "ay" in forte? I'm a classically trained musician, and at every single master class or symphony concert I ever participated in the instructor or conductor pronounced the "ay."

And so they should, Baby_Balrog. The musical term is derived from Italian and should be pronounced that way. Forte, when used to describe one's "strong suit" is derived from an old French term for the strong part of a sword, so was pronounced without the accent until people confused it with the musical term. This is still, though, the first recommended pronuncation in most dictionaries.

Like it matters. Or if you want people to think you're a tool. Christ, I'm becoming a pedant, in the truest sense of the word.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:09 AM on February 9, 2008


If you could care less about begging the question you've got another thing coming.

Personally I wonder why people need to repurpose "beg the question" to mean "raise the question", when there's nothing wrong with "raise the question". If you mean "raise the question", why can't you just say it instead of misappropriating a term that has a different meaning?
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:18 AM on February 9, 2008


IndigoJones writes "I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but the question remains - what do we teach our children?"

When it comes to language, "correct" means that an instance of language usage (writing or speaking) accurately conveys the author's ideas in a tone that the author intends to the audience that the author is addressing. In the case of "begs the question", everyone understands the new common meaning (and distinguishing the meanings is simple from context), but it carries the risk of starting this argument, which could be a problem in tone.

This idea of "(the majority of) native speakers" runs into all sorts of trouble in defining what a language is (English? Which one? American English? Which one? The one the majority of Americans speak? The plurality?), what the roles of dialects are, and variations in usage to modify tone...besides the fact that it's really a fantasy definition; we can't be constantly running polls to determine correct or acceptable usage.

I think it's best to bypass these polarizing ideas of formal correctness entirely and stick to a simple piece of functional advice: one should use language such that one is communicating effectively.

Of course, to do that, there are many, many instances where it's helpful to know the rules...
posted by mr_roboto at 11:19 AM on February 9, 2008


Excellent points all, IndigoJones. From the top:

The Native speakers qualification gets us on a slippery slope in a world where English is fast becoming the second language and lingua franca of choice. Something to think about.


Indeed, and (as with so many things involving language) there is no simple, clear answer. The best I can do at the moment is to say that a large body of second-language users (say, in South Asia) create their own dialect and have a perfect right to decide what's "correct" for that dialect. Furthermore, words and usages they create can filter into the language at large, which may be happening with the fine word prepone (opposite of postpone).

Also- it seems sort of hard cheese on non-native speakers who go to all the effort of learning the language "properly" only to be told that the received wisdom is more of a guideline than a rule, and that - wait for it - some illiterate valley girls have more say on what is correct than, say, a foreign born college English professor who has spent years studying the history and literature of the language and even written some well received novels in that language.


I think you're mixing apples and apelsiny there. (Apelsiny is the Russian word for 'oranges'; I'd be more pleased with that delightful bilingual pun if I didn't have the sneaking suspicion that I stole it from Vladimir Vladimirovich himself. It's just the kind of thing he loved to do.) The first part is, yes, hard cheese; language changes, it's inevitable that the version of a language a foreigner learns will turn out to be out of date by the time they try to use it, and well, that's just something we have to deal with in life. I'm sure the French slang I learned several decades ago is laughably archaic by now, and if I went to France I'd have to learn a whole new vocabulary. (Fortunately, the internet makes that process a whole lot easier; I keep up with Russian slang by reading Russian blogs.)

The second part doesn't really have much to do with it; great bilingual authors are so rare they aren't really illustrative of anything except themselves. I must point out, though, that as brilliant as Nabokov was, his sense of English was not impeccable. He occasionally plucked some archaic form from the OED and tried to use it in ways that didn't really work; Edmund Wilson twitted him for this in his review of Nabokov's perverse translation of Eugene Onegin (the commentary to which is one of the greatest gifts he made to the English-speaking reader trying to approach Russian literature). Nabokov himself would deny, of course, that a random native speaker of English had the right to claim priority over himself in proper use of the language, but all that shows is that he had the arrogance and egotism we expect of a great writer.

I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but the question remains - what do we teach our children? Do we correct their amusing solecisms or do we ignore them in faith that the future belongs to them, valley girl speak and all? I've asked before and not really gotten a good answer, but do we do the inner city child any favors by tolerating ghetto talk instead of teaching standard English? Cuts down on the career opportunities, for one thing, as earlier immigrants well knew.

What indeed? This is something parents have to decide for themselves, of course, but I would emphasize that I have never said all forms of English are interchangeable and kids should never be given instruction about language because they automatically speak it perfectly. Only an idiot or a fanatic (which comes to the same thing) would insist that slang, "solecisms," and other disapproved forms are appropriate to all circumstances in life. It is perfectly in order to explain that "ain't" (say) ain't acceptable in the classroom or on the job, and if you want to get places in life you have to learn when to say it and when not to. What isn't in order is to say it and other disapproved forms "aren't English" and punish kids for their use, or to judge other people's intelligence based on their use. I like to compare it to clothing: there's nothing wrong with t-shirt and jeans, but you can't wear them everywhere, so you should have other clothes for more formal situations. Note that a suit isn't "better" or "more correct" than t-shirt and jeans, it's just different, and the same is true of formal English.

I'm not suggesting that we insist on outmoded patterns, or reject useful neologism- as you say, it won't work anyway. But a little bit of prescriptivism could make a world of difference to those looking for some guidance, and I would rather that guidance come from a serious student. Sometimes even from the hat.

Absolutely, and whenever anyone asks for guidance about what's considered "good usage" I'm happy to give it—I want everyone to have an equal chance to be respected. But I do not look down on people who haven't learned "proper" usage, and I think poorly of people who do look down on them.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on February 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


IndigoJones writes "I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but the question remains - what do we teach our children?"

By the way, shame on you for not writing:

"I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but it begs the question - what do we teach our children?"

I know you wanted to.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:21 AM on February 9, 2008


You know, communication is very elastic. You can get your meaning across using English words in ways that are not really English -- "Tarzan swing." "Help, now! Baby, fire!" The fact that I can understand people who use "begs the question" wrong, or who say "I could of gone" or "literally the biggest meal in the history of the world" doesn't mean they're using English right.

The fact that lots of -- most -- people use it wrong means, I guess, that I have to suck it up because I'm not going to change all of their minds. But the logical meaning of the phrase is so useful, I hate to see it go. And it grates on me in the same way other expressions of general ignorance do. I mean, maybe you need to take a college philosophy class to know this phrase -- I don't think that's quite true, but suppose it was. The same could be said of knowing about lots of great intellectuals of the past etc, and it makes me sad when people haven't heard of those people. It makes me feel like all this valuable stuff is being lost. I'm not going to go around making fun of people or being an asshole, but come on, some expressions and ideas are so lovely and useful for clear expression of ideas that people are deprived if they don't learn them. (Maybe that's not the case with begging the question, but I tend to think it is. I tend to think your mental world is limited if you don't at least have this concept, even if you don't call it by this name. And I think many people don't have the concept -- I speak from experience trying to teach the concept.)


HOT TEENS ARE BEGGING THE QUESTION RIGHT NOW!
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:04 AM on February 9 [1 favorite +] [!]


Yes. In papers they wrote for me.

"Military service should be mandatory because everyone should serve in the military"
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:26 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, amyms, cute article.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2008


This is sometimes called “circular reasoning.” For example:

* You wouldn’t have come to the Non-Expert unless you were really desperate.
* You have come to the Non-Expert.
* Therefore, you are desperate.

My conclusion—“you are desperate”—is not very convincing here, because I have assumed in my argument precisely what I claim to be proving.
Is it just me or is this not an instance of begging the question? This looks like a legitimate syllogism to me. Whether you accept the premises or not is a separate matter.
posted by A-Train at 11:36 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


LobsterMitten writes "The fact that I can understand people who use 'begs the question' wrong, or who say 'I could of gone' or 'literally the biggest meal in the history of the world' doesn't mean they're using English right"

Which is why I think any description of how language should be used needs center around the author's intent in terms of both conveyed meaning and conveyed tone. You might understand what those people mean, but you think they're clumsy and uneducated: something which I would bet they're not trying to convey.

I like what languagehat says: it makes sense to talk about good usage, but discussing correct or acceptable usage is problematic. And "good usage" needs to be understood to be situationally dependent.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:39 AM on February 9, 2008


You know, communication is very elastic. You can get your meaning across using English words in ways that are not really English -- "Tarzan swing." "Help, now! Baby, fire!"

Quite right, but that's irrelevant to what we're talking about. "Tarzan swing" is not English—no native English speaker would say it except as a conscious example of "Tarzan-speak." Your later examples—"begs the question," "I could of gone," and "literally the biggest meal in the history of the world"—are perfectly good English. The fact that you personally dislike them is neither here nor there. I guarantee you if you gave me a transcript of everything you said and wrote for a 24-hour period I could find lots of examples of usages that the "grammar maven" types disapprove of. What does that prove: that you aren't using English? That you haven't yet achieved the perfection that is the only thing worthy of the name "English"? Not at all; it proves that the English worshipped by the mavens is not the actual language but some imagined ideal, free of split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, and a random collection of usages that someone somewhere decided were "wrong."

Three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote "I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mobb and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers and betrayed by those who promised to assist me." Till the end of his life he insisted that mob was a useless piece of jargon and that English already had a perfectly good word, rabble, to express the idea. Don't be like poor betrayed Jonathan. Realize that language changes, that no one person owns it, and relax. Your English is fine; so is the next guy's. Any native speaker knows his or her own language.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's modus ponens, A-Train, which is a valid argument form. Turns out "Non-Expert" isn't just a clever name.
posted by logicpunk at 11:59 AM on February 9, 2008


What is this fallacy called:

p->q
q->p
____
p^q

(e.g.: God exists because the Bible is true, and the Bible is true because God exists)

I've always thought of this as a circular argument, but if a circular argument is begging the question, then what's this? Wikipedia suggests that this is "circular reasoning" or "the fallacy of circular reasoning", but both of those just redirect back to begging the question.
posted by Pyry at 12:03 PM on February 9, 2008


I don't really care about the prescriptivism: pro or con debate. Technical jargon will survive in its own niche and people will go on using the term differently outside that niche.

What I'm interested in is: is circular reasoning ever considered valid? In an informal context, perhaps? What if a weaker version of a premise is used to derive a stronger version? Can that be considered to indicate some sort of "robustness" to a belief system? If you have a false premise (or, rather, premises that are inconsistent), presumably you can eventually arise at a contradiction. If you start from A and go around in circles deriving A again and can never seem to get ~A, at some point do you say: well, that's certainly not proof, but it has some value as confirmation?
posted by Schmucko at 12:08 PM on February 9, 2008


In my opinion, the guideline between what should be encouraged and what should be discouraged is whether the infraction, if widely accepted, might diminish our ability to describe things precisely. "Begs the question," in the end, has a useful, commonly appreciated meaning. As much as I hate to admit it, "another thing coming" communicates the idea just as well as "another think." But I will never yield on the muddling of "imply" and "infer": two distinct concepts meaning opposite things. This should not be lost.

Says me. And, as others have pointed out, the glory of the English language is that it is used all over the world and, in the process, evolves. It borrows words from other languages and acquires new ones and new meanings from the kids. If there was an Academie Anglaise people like me would probably be on it. But there's not, and that's good.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 12:13 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Does this mean all planes will be landing momentarily? Better jump off quick before they take off again.
posted by A189Nut at 12:21 PM on February 9, 2008


I don't beg the question. I fuck and then eat the question.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:28 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I haven't looked at logic in a while but it seems to me that question-begging can be a perfectly valid syllogism, it just fails to impress. If you slip the conclusion into the premises, then of course the conclusion logically follows from the premises -- it's not a syllogistic error so much as an error of thought.

What is this fallacy called:

p->q
q->p
____
p^q

(e.g.: God exists because the Bible is true, and the Bible is true because God exists)


What you've drawn is slightly different from what you said. What you've drawn is not circular, it's just wrong. From the two premises (if God exists then the Bible is true, and if the Bible is true then God exists) it would follow that p <> q, not p^q, i.e. mutual implication, i.e. they are either both true or both false. You would have to describe it differently to make it circular, more like the way you said it...where the premise is "the Bible is true", and the conclusion ends up being "the Bible is true". Like:

p (premise: the Bible is true)
p > q (premise: the truth of the Bible entails the existence of God)
q (God exists; follows from steps 1 and 2)
q > p (premise: God's existence implies the truth of the Bible)
p (conclusion, follows from the last two steps)

Nothing in here is wrong as long as your three premises stand up on their own, but it's just pointless since you've driven in a circle. It begs the question of whether the first premise is right; anyone bothering to dispute the conclusion will start right in by disputing the first premise. Also the last premise, that God's existence implies the truth of the Bible, is shaky in its own right. Only the second premise is really solid.
posted by creasy boy at 12:49 PM on February 9, 2008


I hate it when incompetent people fuck shit up and then are too self-righteous to correct their mistake.
posted by oddman at 12:51 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


As I read these comments, I find myself favoriting those which I find myself in agreement with. I also find myself thinking that this (publicly expressing favoritism) is an "abuse" of the concept whose intended usage (assigning private favoritism) is implied by the name "favorite".

Nevertheless I do it, and so does everyone else so that's what "favorite" means now -- digg up. (Maybe most other people go back and review their favorited items, I don't know, but I don't.)
posted by BaxterG4 at 12:59 PM on February 9, 2008


Languagehat writes: "Don't be like poor betrayed Jonathan" (Jonathan Swift, that is, who vainly protested that people were using the word "mob" instead of the older world "rabble.")

But why not? As one who teaches college writing, I tend to disagree, and to think that it's much better to be swept away in error than to never have exercised or expressed one's own judgment about how to use language. Better to have some opinions--and a few that end up laughed a--than to sit on the sidelines with nothing to say, other that to recommend study and emulation of majority practice.

I know, or guess, that this has been hashed out here before, but since we're at it again, I think that the attitude towards language required in linguistics, and that required by most users of language is quite different, and that this difference should be respected. In other words, descriptivists, such as languagehat, are employing a questionable set of assumptions when they insist people like Jonson were wrong--or perhaps even pitiable--for preferring "rabble" to "mob," once most people had become comfortable with the word "mob."

"Majority usage" is too easy a cop out. After all, someone had to defy majority usage to come up with "mob" in the first place, and to prefer it, despite the glowering disapproval of Jonathan Swift and others. On what basis did these early users prefer "mob"? Not because it was the term most used, but for the same kind of reasons Jonson disliked it. They found it useful; they found it expressive; they liked the sound of it. They had *reasons,* practical, aesthetic, and political for their word choices, and if these early users had simply accepted the descriptivist notion that majority usage is "correct," then we'd have been stuck with only rabble forever.

On the other hand, I don't want to defend inconsiderate or incomprehensible idiosyncrasy; of course when using language one should consider one's audience (and of course, one's audience is rarely native speakers as a whole). So, in the particular case of the expression "begging the question," you'd want to be sensitive to your audience: if discussing an issue on CNN, you'd use it (if at all) to mean "raising the question;" however if you were writing a college paper (or anything for publication in an academic journal) you'd certainly want to use the expression in its more technical sense.
posted by washburn at 12:59 PM on February 9, 2008


From the two premises (if God exists then the Bible is true, and if the Bible is true then God exists) it would follow that p <> q, not p^q, i.e. mutual implication.

Yes, I'm wondering if there is a name for "a if and only if b therefore a and b", which isn't valid logic at all (like most fallacies), as opposed to begging the question which valid but pointless.

I'm looking for a name for the case where you demonstrate that p <> q but never actually get around to proving either of them (this would probably be in a very long proof so this obvious error might not be apparent).
posted by Pyry at 1:18 PM on February 9, 2008


"Prepone" is what gets caught in your zipper sometimes. Hurts like hell.
posted by CCBC at 1:18 PM on February 9, 2008


is circular reasoning ever considered valid?

One way to think about game-theoretic results is that they're a grand exercise in circular reasoning, because the results that you find are really just another way of stating your assumptions. The result of the single-iteration prisoners' dilemma (both players defect) is arguably just another way of saying that both players have a dominant strategy of defection, which is arguably just another way of presenting the payoff matrix that you've assumed.

Even to the extent that this is true, though, an interesting game-theoretic result will restate the assumptions in a way that's more interesting, or more relevant to human behavior, or that's less intuitive.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:20 PM on February 9, 2008


I'm wondering if there is a name for "a if and only if b therefore a and b"

Hmm...I can imagine there might be cases in doing actual research where you find that two tentative theories mutually imply each other, and you take this as additional evidence for both theories. As long as you have some independent reason to believe the two propositions, the principle doesn't seem so bad ... for inductive thought.

Don't know any name for this.
posted by creasy boy at 1:30 PM on February 9, 2008


A thoughtful comment, washburn, and deserves a more thoughtful answer than I have time to give at the moment (I'm stealing time away from a job with a deadline I'm not sure I can meet). I'll just say, too briefly, that I have no problem with people expressing their preferences about linguistic usage (I have plenty of my own, such as disliking the use of disinterested to mean 'uninterested'); what I object to is pretending that your personal preference is some sort of objective judgment about the language. It would have been fine for Swift to say "I don't like this newfangled mob; what's wrong with rabble?" But to consider mob some sort of evil blight on the language and try to enlist others in a crusade to eliminate it—well, that's silly and pointless and a waste of time that could have been spent writing great satire.

If you're teaching college writing, it's your job to express your judgment about how to use language, and judging by your comments here I imagine you do it well. But I would hope your judgments would be based on more than personal dislike, and would be framed in terms of situational acceptability rather than anathema. There's all the difference in the world between "this usage is lazy/clichéd/sloppy" or "this usage is generally considered substandard" and "this usage is wrong/evil/not English!"

As always, I highly recommend Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which alone among the usage guides not only tells you what's considered good and bad usage but explains the history both of the usage itself and of the judgments made on it. If you read of a certain form that it's been used by every major author from Chaucer on down and was never considered controversial until some 19th-century grammarian decided it was illogical and started a crusade against it, you can make up your own mind how seriously to take the condemnation.
posted by languagehat at 1:33 PM on February 9, 2008


Or is mathematical induction in some ways like a circular argument? Or a circular argument slightly avoided? You assume a statement is true for n, and then you prove it's true for n+1. Close to going around in a circle, but you actually get somewhere.
posted by Schmucko at 2:18 PM on February 9, 2008


You assume a statement is true for n, and then you prove it's true for n+1. Close to going around in a circle, but you actually get somewhere.

You're missing a step in the inductive proof: you also have to prove the statement is true for n=1.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:24 PM on February 9, 2008


Metafilter: to boldly go where language gets worser.
posted by progosk at 2:33 PM on February 9, 2008


why can't you just say it instead of misappropriating a term that has a different meaning?

Because it's not misappropriating the term. "X is true; this begs for the question of whether Y must also be true."

The worlds mean this, clearly and plainly. Any reasonable speaker of English is going to think of 'begging the question' as being a variation of the above, unless specifically trained otherwise. It's the philosophers who screwed up, by trying to redefine words to mean something entirely different from what they mean on their face. Begging means asking for. It has nothing to do with circular arguments.

It's like I'm claiming that 'growing daisies' will henceforth be a code word for a pot operation, and then saying that anyone actually talking about growing daisies is using the phrase 'wrong'.

The phrase "begging the question", in the common form, is an assemblage of perfectly reasonable words that clearly communicates a specific idea. Some specialists have tried to hijack the phrase, but it's refusing to stay hijacked. Too bad for them, eh?
posted by Malor at 2:38 PM on February 9, 2008


I'm a little late to the game, but I am loathe to reducing the normative aspects of word-usage to statistical facts. As such, I would want to say that the correct use of the phrase 'begs the question' is one which conveys that one has committed the fallacy. However, none can deny that the phrase is successful, in certain contexts, in communicating something quite different. I don't know exactly what the right thing to say about this is, since a definitive answer requires some story to tell about changes in language, and I am too drunk, and stupid, to produce such a story. But I imagine that such a story can be told which respects the distinction between the literal meaning of a phrase, and the things which it can be used to convey.
posted by Tullius at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2008


What, a whole thread about prescriptive language and no mention of The Elements of Style?
posted by eclectist at 3:19 PM on February 9, 2008


I find it kinda ironic when people say that the original meaning of a word is dead, and it now means something else, so get over it. The meaning of the word will change again anyway, maybe back into its original form, and maybe because people made a stink about it. This is part of the normal course of events.
posted by Hildago at 3:36 PM on February 9, 2008


But I was wondering how I could best put words in a character's mouth that were not so obviously wrong as to be my creation, but might be subtle enough that a reader might say "does that author really not know the difference between imply and infer?"

Since you're asking me, all I can tell you is that If I was faced with this problem, I'd work hard to banish it from my mind. Why? Because it's wrapped up with ego. "Does the author really not know the difference between imply and infer?" If If I'm worrying that people might question my intelligence, then I'm worried about me when I should be worried about my story, instead.

I'm not free from ego. I'm human, and I don't like people to think I'm stupid. But I'm "religious" about the role of the writer. His role, in my view, is to tell a story (or communicate an idea). It's not to make himself look smart, creative or original. I often cut things from my work because they seem too cool or original. I worry that they reader will think, "Wow, that was really cool how the writer came up with that thing!" And then they'll be thinking about me and not my subject.

So if I wanted a character to sound stupid, I'd make him sound stupid. I'd use or misuse whatever words I thought would do that. And I wouldn't worry about anything else.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently a non-fiction writer, though I'm toying with the idea of writing fiction. But I'm also a theatre director, and the same issue rears its head in that work. I'm continually killing my (stage) darlings because they strike me as too cool.

Recently, I staged a scene in such a way that the actors wound up standing in this really beautiful, symmetrical pattern. There was a collective "wow" from the actors when they realized how I'd staged it. And I immediately knew it needed to go. So I "grunged it up," making it look much clunckier -- as if the actors were just standing around in a random pattern.

Most people in the audience won't notice anything, which is the goal. They'll just pay attention to the words, which is what I want. But if another director comes, he may look at the staging in that part and immediately see the opportunity for coolness that I "missed." He'll think I'm a hack. Oh well. Such is life.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:42 PM on February 9, 2008


The meaning of the word will change again anyway, maybe back into its original form, and maybe because people made a stink about it. This is part of the normal course of events.

Do you have any examples of this, or are you just talking out of your ass? Because I've studied a lot of etymology, and I don't know any examples of a word that changed "back into its original form... because people made a stink about it." And what's "ironic" about stating facts?
posted by languagehat at 3:42 PM on February 9, 2008


It's the weird use of the word "begging" that causes the problem, surely?

In this case, it sort of means "asking for a free ride", does that make sense?

It's like a kid saying to a parent "Because I've tidied my room, I should get my allowance. But please don't look in my room" -- because X is true, Y is true. But you have to give me X for free.

I don't think it's always wrong to say "that's begging the question" and follow it up with the question. There could be other ambiguities to be resolved.

If I say to you "because people of such-and-such an ethnicity often suffer from such-and-such a disease, and the disease costs taxpayers a lot of money, the government ought to put some money into a prevention program" you might want to clarify which of the questions was being begged.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:44 PM on February 9, 2008


Ignorance is strength. Pomposity is doubleplusungood.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:47 PM on February 9, 2008


Do you have any examples of this, or are you just talking out of your ass? Because I've studied a lot of etymology, and I don't know any examples of a word that changed "back into its original form... because people made a stink about it." And what's "ironic" about stating facts?

The ironic part is that the "usage changes" axiom is being used to browbeat people who are actually the ones who are trying to change the accepted usage in this case (because the traditionalists are in the minority on this one). This is a reversal of the normal relationship. Maybe I wasn't being clear, or maybe you just disagree.

I also read your comment as somewhat defensive. Maybe this is because you read my comment as hostile—not so, and apologies if that's the case.
posted by Hildago at 4:33 PM on February 9, 2008


A-Train - yes, the whole article is built on jokes like that. "Examples" of begging the question which really aren't examples of it at all.

Languagehat: it proves that the English worshipped by the mavens is not the actual language but some imagined ideal, free of split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, and a random collection of usages that someone somewhere decided were "wrong."

This is not really the same. Objecting to the introduction of new words (Swift and "mob") or the making-up from whole cloth of "rules" (the Victorian prescriptivists) are different from objecting to shifts in the meaning of existing expressions.

I'm not a hardcore prescriptivist by any stretch of the imagination, so please let's not have that fight. But I think there is room to object to some usages more strongly than just on grounds of personal preference, where everyone's preferences might be considered equally worth paying attention to.

There are some uses that are not high-falutin' but which are perfectly fine. There are other usages that are just mistakes. I think this is an area where there can be experts, people who know what the proper uses are and what uses are just plain improper (for now). "All intensive purposes" is just plain wrong. Now, if it comes to a point where 80% of the population uses it, I will agree that it's not worth fighting, but really, it's just based on a misreading. It's a mistake. Maybe in 200 years it will be standard, and its etymology will say "based on a mistaken reading of the phrase 'all intents and purposes' beginning in the 20th century." Right now it's a mistake.

I teach logic, and I teach writing to students who don't really read, and I also try to teach them why they should reject very naive forms of moral relativism and relativism about truth ("who are we to judge, man?"). So this hits the intersection of several topics of practical concern to me. When I teach writing, I generally frame it as "If you want an educated reader to think that you are educated, here's the usage you should use", but sometimes I do revert to "nope, that's wrong, the phrase is 'all intents and purposes'" for shorthand. I don't think this is doing the students harm. If I were teaching linguistics, or if I were teaching upper-level students a course on usage, I would hit the descriptivism drum harder.

Malor: It's the philosophers who screwed up, by trying to redefine words to mean something entirely different from what they mean on their face....Some specialists have tried to hijack the phrase, but it's refusing to stay hijacked.

In fairness, the phrase started out life as piece of technical jargon in logic. It's a translation of the Latin name for the fallacy. It wasn't "hijacked" by logic, it was born there. Those words in that order -- "begs the question" -- have entered the wider non-logician consciousness, and people misunderstood what the phrase meant but kept the phrase, re-purposing it for a more natural-sounding use.

Pyry: I don't know a name offhand. It would be a case where you've shown a biconditional but instead conclude a conjunction. That would be, maybe, failing to use the rules for conditional elimination? Not all fallacies or invalid argument forms have special names.

Schmucko: Is circular reasoning ever valid? A good question with some surprising answers. Point one: It's always valid. Validity is just a matter of whether the premises entail the conclusion, and in the case of a circular argument they do indeed. Point two: all deductively valid arguments are circular, in the sense that the premises collectively logically necessitate the conclusion. Deduction is, in a sense, just a way of drawing out what's "contained" in the propositions we already accept; it's not a way of reaching totally novel conclusions.

Deciding what you're allowed to assume, given what you're trying to prove, is actually quite a delicate affair. The really simple examples of begging the question that we use in teaching are clear -- you can't use as a premise the very sentence you're trying to prove. Ok, but what about more complex examples? It gets tricky and becomes a matter of philosophical judgment whether an assumption is legitimate or problematically question-begging. It's a really interesting topic.

Relatedly, there are examples of "vicious circles" in philosophy ("vicious" in the sense of "full of vice", not "dangerous and biting" like a dog)-- this is where you inter-define terms in a way that's not okay, given the context. But there are also so-called "virtuous circles" -- where you inter-define terms but it's okay because the definitions give us some insight into the nature of the things described. In any case, whether a circle is vicious or virtuous is a matter of debate.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:36 PM on February 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


AmbroseChapel: If I say to you "because people of such-and-such an ethnicity often suffer from such-and-such a disease, and the disease costs taxpayers a lot of money, the government ought to put some money into a prevention program" you might want to clarify which of the questions was being begged.

The way the phrase is used in logic, this would not be an example of begging the question. This is an example of making unsupported assertions, which require some support. In making these assertions you're taking on a burden of proof that you need to discharge by showing that the assertions are true (or, by giving some reasons to believe they're true). How strong an obligation you have to support the assertions depends on context -- sometimes they'll be assertions that all reasonable people believe, for example "the earth is flat" and then you don't have to support them. Sometimes they'll be assertions that are hotly contested in the context (as in your room-cleaning example) and then your obligation to provide support is greater.

But begging the question is a very narrowly defined charge. It's assuming what you're trying to prove, it's not making us ask further questions.

I cleaned my room.
If I cleaned, I should get my allowance.
Therefore I should get my allowance.

In the room-cleaning example, the kid is trying to prove that he should get his allowance -- so that's what he isn't allowed to assume. He is allowed to assume "I cleaned my room" without begging the question. The argument above is not a question-begging argument in the logical sense, even though its first premise requires better support given the context (in other words, the first premise might naturally cause us to ask the question "did you really clean it?").
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:47 PM on February 9, 2008


That is, in the logical sense of "begging the question" there is no need to clarify what question is being begged, because that's given by understanding what conclusion the person is trying to prove. The simplest form of question-begging argument is:

I should get my allowance.
Therefore I should get my allowance.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:52 PM on February 9, 2008


Thanks, grumblebee. And I am loving this thread.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:28 PM on February 9, 2008


What I mean by "loving this thread" is as follows. I would normally find myself in the company of people who cared about language, what, once a year? And then it would be one, or maybe two, people in a bar. I know I'm stating the obvious when I say that I'm privileged to be part of MetaFilter, where one can discuss things with intelligent people from around the world, but so be it. It's cool.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2008


I preferred basking in my own ignorance.
posted by bigskyguy at 9:43 PM on February 9, 2008


What's the deal with people saying "Wallah!" instead of "Voila?"

That burns my cheese.
posted by Bonzai at 11:25 PM on February 9, 2008


What's the deal with people saying "Wallah!" instead of "Voila?"

Al-Qa'ida infiltration of the Western socio-cultural complex. It's the fundamentalist Islamist agenda and the clash of civilizations.
posted by XMLicious at 6:47 AM on February 10, 2008


Late to this thread but like Turtles I simply have had to banish "forte" (in the sense of a personal strength) from my spoken vocabulary. I absolutely refuse to pronounce it as it were from the Italian meaning loud when it is from the French meaning strength. But at the same time I can't let people assume I am the one who is mispronouncing.

What I can -- and do -- is allow myself the luxury of correcting someone else who misuses the word.
posted by MattD at 8:19 AM on February 10, 2008


Wait, so what's the verdict? Do I have to abandon hoi polloi, kudos, forte, et al., or else be seen as an ostentatious pedant?
posted by pineapple at 8:31 AM on February 10, 2008


…I simply have had to banish "forte" (in the sense of a personal strength) from my spoken vocabulary. I absolutely refuse to pronounce it as it were from the Italian meaning loud when it is from the French meaning strength.

Fortée, peut-être?
posted by XMLicious at 9:41 AM on February 10, 2008


LanguageHat:
Realize that language changes, that no one person owns it, and relax. Your English is fine; so is the next guy's. Any native speaker knows his or her own language.
I'm not convinced that this is so. I think it's entirely possible for a majority of native speakers to be incorrect.

Here's an example from my ten years in the US. I used to experience this weird cognitive dissonance when I heard Americans say something like, "He never went to Paris" when referring to person still alive. For me, this statement implies that the person cannot ever go to Paris, and likely that he is dead. The alternative tense used for this is the present perfect and the correct statement would be, "He hasn't been to Paris" or "He has never been to Paris" with an implied yet in each case.

When I realized that a majority of Americans (or at least a majority of Americans I spoke with) had no concept of the present perfect, I could listen to them without pausing to wonder why it sounded wrong.

So I would ask LanguageHat, if he accepts the premises above:
  • whether these native speakers are incorrect or
  • whether there is an alternative English they are speaking in which they are correct.
I think that the second alternative leaves all native speakers using a private English in which they are never wrong. It's sort of like nominalism applied to English.

As a further topical proposal on the descriptivist/prescriptivist front, perhaps:
  • native speakers are never wrong or
  • native speakers elect delegates who select correct English or
  • native speakers' delegates vote but can be overruled by free-thinking super-delegates.
posted by A-Train at 12:48 PM on February 10, 2008


Mr Roboto writes
By the way, shame on [me] for not writing:

"I take the point, things change, life's hard, toughen up, but it begs the question - what do we teach our children?"

I know you wanted to.


Certainly not! Though admittedly I did set it up that way as a bit of needle. Myself, I respect the expression as a technical tool, and so leave it along. "Raises the question" satisfies for the commoner meaning.

But neither would I correct someone (unasked) on the matter- well, except my darling daughter. It would be rude. After a point, the distinctions become aesthetic rather than functional (e.g. Languagehat's issue with disinterested vs uninterested, always a point of contention), and one should avoid being either the first to adopt the new nor the last to give up the old.

PS to LH, thank you for the extended commentary (I used to have that Onegin, until I gave it away in an act of ill advised generosity). The Nabokov reference was a bit of tease, of course, I think we agree more than we disagree, that a "a suit isn't "better" or "more correct" than t-shirt and jeans, it's just different, and the same is true of formal English". My concern is that the young'uns are not aware or not being taught how or when to wear a suit, or to speak or write formal English, or even that it makes a difference, and are being short changed at school and in life because of it. (As to business English, don't get me started.) Not accusing you, mind, but there are those who get tetchy on the subject...
posted by IndigoJones at 12:53 PM on February 10, 2008


I think it's entirely possible for a majority of native speakers to be incorrect.

Of course you do; almost everyone who hasn't studied linguistics does. It's just as "obvious" that there is some ideal standard of language against which we can measure the performance of actual speakers as it is that the sun goes around the earth. Go back a few centuries and try to convince people that it's the other way around, or that man can go to the moon, or that matter and energy are the same thing, or any other very unobvious truth we now acknowledge. I'm not putting you down, I'm lamenting the fact that the discoveries of linguistics have not penetrated the popular mind the way those of physics and astronomy have. Yes, of course people get the details wrong, they can't explain the meaning of "relativity" or "quantum" to the satisfaction of a specialist, but their general picture of the world is reasonably scientific (setting aside the evolution controversy, and there at least the disbelievers know what the scientists think). When it comes to language, the entire field of linguistics might as well not exist; people think about language exactly the way their ancestors did, accepting the same "obvious" beliefs that aren't true.

Look, I'm not saying it's easy. Everyone who takes linguistics spends a good part of the first semester fighting what they're told; it goes against both our intuitions and what we were told by ignorant grade-school teachers. But facts are facts, and the only scientific meaning for "correct" when it comes to grammar is "what native speakers say." It is possible for native speakers to make mistakes, of course; we all misspeak from time to time. But it is impossible for native speakers to consistently get the grammar of their native language (or dialect) wrong, because the grammar of that language is simply an abstract summary of the way they use it.

When you say "the correct statement would be, 'He hasn't been to Paris' or 'He has never been to Paris' with an implied yet in each case," what you mean is that those forms are the correct ones in your dialect—they are what you would naturally say. That's irrelevant to the dialect spoken by the Americans you were listening to, and it shows (if you will forgive me) a certain amount of arrogance to think you can pronounce on the grammaticality of a dialect you yourself don't speak.

And that arrogance is the reason I sometimes express myself more harshly than I ought to in these discussions. Hildago, I didn't read your comment as hostile, and there's no need to apologize; I apologize for having gotten snippy with you. But you have no idea how frustrating it is to keep banging my head against the exact same misunderstandings and refusals to admit that linguists might have a point. When you talked about "the normal course of events" it was clear to me that you had no idea what the normal course of events is; that's not your fault, and it was unkind to say you were talking out of your ass, but in fact you were, and sometimes it's beyond my powers to be polite about these things. If you had to keep correcting people who said confidently that 2 + 2 = 5, you might be patient the first few dozen times you explained that it was, in fact, 4, but after a while you'd probably get snippy too. And, you know, when I try to explain carefully and patiently I get called condescending, and when I toss off a quick rebuttal I get called hostile, and, well, it's not easy.
posted by languagehat at 2:33 PM on February 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


Oh, and Indigo, I agree that we basically agree, and it's nice to feel the warm glow of successful communication!
posted by languagehat at 2:34 PM on February 10, 2008


I would like to introduce the Metafilter-specific phrase 'to clusterfuck the question,' as in: "Man, we completely clusterfucked that question, didn't we?" or "You have so badly clusterfucked the question as to make it unanswerable, doodyhead!" Heavy with cromulentosity, don't you think?

And, you know, when I try to explain carefully and patiently I get called condescending, and when I toss off a quick rebuttal I get called hostile, and, well, it's not easy.

Don't fret, mate. Laying down the smack when it's justified (and I won't offer an opinion whether this was one of those times, 'cause I wasn't really paying attention) is righteous, as long as it's not mean-spirited.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:56 PM on February 10, 2008


Much appreciated, compadre! (And it's probably best to pay as little attention as possible to begging the question.)
posted by languagehat at 5:46 PM on February 10, 2008


...it's nice to feel the warm glow of successful communication!

Successful communication embiggens us all.

With credit to stavros, whose use of "cromulentosity" gave me an overpowering urge to use "embiggens."
posted by amyms at 7:42 PM on February 10, 2008


That we would keep discussing this silly point year after year after year, well that is sort of circular all in itself.
posted by caddis at 8:27 PM on February 10, 2008


My successful communication is also named 'Bort'.
posted by cortex at 10:26 PM on February 10, 2008


Labeling a something correct/incorrect in language usage sounds to me like arguing about whether an object is true/untrue. Does not compute. Abort, retry, fail, ignore?

I guess one could say that "correct" is when I am intending for you to get my meaning by what I'm saying and you get my meaning by what I'm saying. You got it?
posted by iamkimiam at 12:44 AM on February 11, 2008


Is this where we complain about technical terms that get used in non-technical forums and have meanings there which don't match their technical meanings?

If so, I'd like to register my distaste for "exponential growth" to mean "very fast growth" when the growth is not, in fact, mathematically exponential. (My savings account grows exponentially, according to the technical meaning, but that by no means has made me rich.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:25 AM on February 11, 2008


I see this thread continues to unfold, despite deadlines and such. Thanks to languagehat for keeping it going.

A the same time however, I wonder to what degree (you) languagehat, would really want to defend some of the claims you're making here, especially in this comment. You write, for example: "the only scientific meaning for "correct" when it comes to grammar is "what native speakers say," and elaborate: "it's beyond my powers to be polite about these things. If you had to keep correcting people who said confidently that 2 + 2 = 5, you might be patient the first few dozen times you explained that it was, in fact, 4, but after a while you'd probably get snippy too."

You seem to be suggesting that when people ask about what's "correct" in matters of language use, that they're expecting an answer that's "scientifically" correct--like the atomic weight of water, perhaps. But on what evidence can one make such a claim? Personally I've never known anyone who regarded the rules of language in this way. For what it's worth, the OED gives "In accordance with an acknowledged or conventional standard, esp. of literary or artistic style, or of manners or behaviour; proper" as the first definition of "correct," and it seems to me that the OED here describes the sense of the word (one related to "conventional" standards, rather than purportedly objective "scientific truth") in which it's almost always used in discussions of language style and usage.

Moreover, by comparing those who use the popular sense of "correct" with those imaginary poor saps who think 2+2=5, you seem to offer up a pretty rare example of a contemporary perspective that really does insist that its own usage is objectively "correct" and derived from and consonant with the nature of the universe itself, like a mathematical truth (something even Jonathan Swift would never have done).

It would seem useful to keep in mind that linguists themselves constitute one more language community, among many, employing assumptions and terminology useful for their own particular ends. To insist that the linguistic sense of "correctness" is the only one that should be used, or that those who use the word in (ahem) the way it's employed by the majority of native speakers are being foolishly unscientific, would seem to reject the very descriptivism that's made possible so much of what linguistics has accomplished.

Of course, I'm not arguing that language isn't conventional, but rather observing that linguistics can't adjudicate the objective correctness of language any more authoritatively than could the the old Fowler's English Usage. It's all those pragmatic turtles, all the way down.
posted by washburn at 9:07 AM on February 11, 2008


Also, Lobstermitten writes: "Is circular reasoning ever valid? A good question with some surprising answers. Point one: It's always valid. Validity is just a matter of whether the premises entail the conclusion, and in the case of a circular argument they do indeed."

That's interesting. Really though? Doesn't a "circular" argument lack a distinction between premise and conclusion, such that it is not really an argument at all, but only a claim?
posted by washburn at 9:15 AM on February 11, 2008


This fail, it is epic?
posted by blue_beetle at 9:19 AM on February 11, 2008


You seem to be suggesting that when people ask about what's "correct" in matters of language use, that they're expecting an answer that's "scientifically" correct--like the atomic weight of water, perhaps. But on what evidence can one make such a claim? Personally I've never known anyone who regarded the rules of language in this way.

You have gotten so very, very lucky. I've encountered lots of folks who have spoken of correctness in usage precisely as if describing something for which (a) there is one and only one allowable answer to any question, and (b) there exists some monolithic (if conveniently unnamed) Authority from which those correct answers flowed.

In other words, there exists in a lot of folks' minds the notion that, yes, there is some attainable nigh-scientific certainty that exaclty one given usage choice is correct, that this fact is somehow stored intrinsically in the favored usage itself, that it has forever (or at least for as long as really matters) been thus, and that all this is backed up by something along the lines of axiomatic set theory, so well-derived and logical and unquestionable are these beliefs.

If you've managed to avoid those people, my hearty congratulations and I can sympathize with your confusion here.
posted by cortex at 9:38 AM on February 11, 2008


washburn: What cortex said, but also:

It would seem useful to keep in mind that linguists themselves constitute one more language community, among many, employing assumptions and terminology useful for their own particular ends. To insist that the linguistic sense of "correctness" is the only one that should be used, or that those who use the word in (ahem) the way it's employed by the majority of native speakers are being foolishly unscientific, would seem to reject the very descriptivism that's made possible so much of what linguistics has accomplished.

You're confusing two very different things. When linguists simply use language like other speakers—say "Have a nice day" or "That begs the question" or whatever—they have no more authority than any other native speaker (and frequently less, due to the well-known fact that the more you think about acceptability problems the less sure you are of your judgment). But when I talk about "correctness," I'm not talking about the common usage reflected in the dictionary, I'm talking about the scientific use developed by linguists, who are scientists who study language. Of course people use all sorts of technical terms in ways that annoy specialists, but the problem here is that people don't acknowledge the fact that linguists have special insight into language the way physicists do into the physical universe. Most people would be happy to say "I'm sure I'm using relativity wrong, but hey, I'm not a physicist!" But people do not even realize that there is a technical usage of correct, for the most part, and when informed of it they reject it indignantly, because it conflicts with their deeply held views of how language works. It's as if people, instead of looking up to Einstein and saying "I don't understand his theory of relativity, but I know it's important!" and maybe having a vague idea of time slowing down as you go faster, rejected Einstein the way fundies reject Darwin, and insisted vigorously that it's crazy and subversive to say that time is measured differently by different observers. This is why it's so frustrating to have these discussions; I'm not asking people to take my word for the meaning of "beg the question" (or whatever) because I am the Authority and am handing down the Tablets, I'm appealing to the findings of a science that most people don't even know exists and dislike when told about it. It's frustrating.
posted by languagehat at 10:16 AM on February 11, 2008


"But it is impossible for native speakers to consistently get the grammar of their native language (or dialect) wrong, because the grammar of that language is simply an abstract summary of the way they use it."

I've never been particularly sympathetic to descriptivism. (I thought I understood it, I just didn't like it.) But that quote has unexpectedly opened my eyes. When the origin of grammar is stressed in that way, descriptivism makes a lot of sense. Well, you learn something new everyday, thanks LH.

BTW, I'm still going to correct everyone single person who, in my eyes, misuses "begs the question." Since the proper usage is the common one, we pedants of the logicist's form can still win the day. (Two steps forward one step back, eh?)
posted by oddman at 11:01 AM on February 11, 2008


BTW, I'm still going to correct everyone single person who, in my eyes, misuses "begs the question."

I'm not sure the proper usage is the common one, though. Correct away, it's a free country, but you're probably going to get a lot more mileage if your correction is an explanation of your difference of opinion with added historical context than if it's "no, you're wrong, this is right". People are generally more receptive to discussion than to fiat; and the folks you do sway will have actually learned something, instead of just blindly following a pre-/pro-scription that they don't really understand.
posted by cortex at 11:17 AM on February 11, 2008


But that quote has unexpectedly opened my eyes. When the origin of grammar is stressed in that way, descriptivism makes a lot of sense. Well, you learn something new everyday, thanks LH.

You have seriously made my day. Sometimes I ask myself why I bother going on and on about stuff like this; it's nice to know that it actually makes a difference from time to time.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on February 11, 2008


I'm pretty sure that I would never disagree with languagehat, as he knows more about everything than I do. I am, also, wholeheartedly a descriptivist, insofar as I understand what one is.

However, I do have to admit that I sigh when I see the common usage of "beg the question" used by television pundits who use and allow circular reasoning on a daily basis. If the annoying pedants help more people notice a common logical fallacy who would otherwise miss it, then I can't completely hate them.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:53 AM on February 11, 2008


Sure, roll truck roll, but talking-head irony doesn't justify grammar naziism. They're two independent thorns in the ass of good communication. The ideal outcome here would be some well-contained Anonymous vs. Scientology showdown between the rules lawyers and the TV pundits in which both parties are destroyed utterly and the rest of us can go about our lives in peace and harmony and regionally-varying colloquial usage.
posted by cortex at 12:05 PM on February 11, 2008


MetaFilter: peace, harmony, and regionally-varying colloquial usage.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:30 PM on February 11, 2008


Cortex notes (and LH seconds): You have gotten so very, very lucky. (Lucky that I've not met people who view language conventions, such as the meaning of "begging the question" as scientific truths).

Well, maybe my luck here has sort of come with the territory of teaching (among other things) college writing--that is, any language authoritarians I may encounter tend to defer to my judgment and so go unnoticed by me, while quite a number of the more constructivist students are only too happy to point out the arbitrary nature of the language conventions under which they are most cruelly forced to labor. (Perhaps I should note here that as a teacher I'm not a much of a stickler for mechanical "correctness").

Even so, I still think that most people who demand to know what's "correct" are just asking in an impatient and shorthand-ish way to be told what the most applicable convention is in the present instance, and that this is what one finds when one talks with them about it. I mean, if I brought this up in class on Wednesday, I'd be shocked if my students claimed that the rules of math and grammar share the same objective nature.

In any case, I hate to see a good argument about grammar or usage spoiled either by stubborn appeals to some old textbook, or to a prevailing norm, either one of which closes down discussion from the perspective of use. I'm appreciative when people think about--and sometimes contest--the language they use, rather than defer automatically to either the wisdom of the rulebook or majority usage. I was perhaps confused by some comments early in the thread, but now I'd guess that that's something about which we probably all agree.
posted by washburn at 2:43 PM on February 11, 2008


Yeah, it sounds like we actually do agree pretty well. I'd say a big point of distinction here is this:

Even so, I still think that most people who demand to know what's "correct" are just asking in an impatient and shorthand-ish way to be told what the most applicable convention is in the present instance, and that this is what one finds when one talks with them about it.

Absolutely. The hair-tearing, clothes-rending impatience comes not from dealing with folks who are asking about usage or "correctness" or language in general but from dealing folks who are telling. I love it when people are curious about language, when words excite them, when they want to know more: that's basically exactly who I am. I don't have any linguistic bona fides either, I just really like this stuff.

But I've got almost zero patience at this point for the unblinking pedant, the smug smartass with a half a cup of knowledge and a gallon of self-righteousness. I've been that guy. It has nothing to do with genuine passion for language and everything to do with the leverage of trivia, the oneupmanship of applied rules-hounding. It's maddening to behold in its pure state, if only (steadily, wearyingly) irritating as a minor streak from smart, otherwise likeable people.

You may in fact be occupying some wonderful eye in the storm by being in a position of (by your suggestion, laid-back) authority and surrounded regularly by students interested in writing rather than by a happenstance army of disinterested Cliff Clavins.
posted by cortex at 3:01 PM on February 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


In a self-referential way, this is pretty funny:
Of course you do; almost everyone who hasn't studied linguistics does.[...]

[...] But facts are facts, and the only scientific meaning for "correct" when it comes to grammar is "what native speakers say." It is possible for native speakers to make mistakes, of course; we all misspeak from time to time. But it is impossible for native speakers to consistently get the grammar of their native language (or dialect) wrong, because the grammar of that language is simply an abstract summary of the way they use it.
So in discussion of a circular reasoning, we have a circular argument for why native speakers can't be mistaken: they're right because they're native speakers and native speakers define the spoken language.

Here's another example. A huge percentage of Americans, in my experience, cannot use the subjunctive. If I had a nickel for every time I heard "If I would have known", I could pretty much retire. So is this optional, too? Is there a new verb tense in American usage to replace or supersede the subjunctive? And if so, what is not optional in English that some native speakers can omit from their private language?

So what do you say about this? Every time you find some systematic departure from the grammatically correct you call it a new dialect? And you use it as evidence that there is actually no correct version? This is exactly what I was calling nominalism earlier: if you create a new concept for every variation, there is nothing that unites them.

To put forward my positive case, the grammar of that language is not merely "an abstract summary of the way [native speakers] use it." The grammar is not arbitrary or capricious in its relation to the speech. It objectively identifies how the language is structured and relates to reality. It's not authoritative because it is sanctioned by experts. It's not authoritative because of some intrinsic properties. It is correct because it does map our thoughts onto reality and what we mean to say about the world.
posted by A-Train at 3:21 PM on February 11, 2008


See, you are exactly the kind of proud know-nothing cortex was talking about. It's not even worth my while to point out that English hasn't had a functioning subjunctive for a long time; you have no interest in anything except your feeling of self-righteous superiority. So go forth and feel superior to everyone else, because no one knows True English except you.
posted by languagehat at 3:32 PM on February 11, 2008


So is this optional, too?

Yep. It's totally optional.

Every time you find some systematic departure from the grammatically correct you call it a new dialect?

Well. You call it a systematic departure from whatever norm it's a systematic departure from. Whether you want to call it a new dialect or just call it a variance in usage is probably a matter of degree and of details that are beyond my experience.

And if you care one whit about anything besides complaining about the violation of your preferred convention, you move on to the next step: looking at why and how this departure occurred, and try to gain some insight on how actual human language changes and bifurcates and reshapes convention through the intersection of group communication and the functioning of the human brain.

You try to learn something, and if you're lucky you do. You hold onto your preferences, sure: everybody has them. Even the most hardcore, activist descriptivist on the planet will have some conscious and unconscious handful (or bushelful) of personal style and usage preferences. But if they're paying any—any—real attention to language as something other than a bizarre and arbitrarily mediated competition, they'll recognize those personal preferences as exactly that and not try to run some sort of petty Star Chamber over anybody who doesn't share precisely their narrow personal view of what is and is not the proper evolutionary snapshot of something as beautiful and varied and complicated as natural human language.
posted by cortex at 3:47 PM on February 11, 2008


"See, you are exactly the kind of proud know-nothing ..." You can do better than that. This is mere ad hominem.

I've given two examples already of readily observable usages in America. I call them mistakes and you call them part of the American dialect. I'm not buying that everyone has a personal dialect with optional parts. I'm not buying that you can pick and choose whatever parts you like and still call it English. And I do think that there is value in having a standard, even though LanguageHat and others prefer to cast it as some game of personal domination.

I'm just raising the question of what makes English.
posted by A-Train at 4:17 PM on February 11, 2008


Well, speak of the Devil . . .

In any case, I think we all know who's to blame for what happened to the subjunctive tense.
posted by washburn at 4:20 PM on February 11, 2008


I'm not buying that you can pick and choose whatever parts you like and still call it English.

Do you understand that there's been very little picking-and-choosing (in any conscious, intentional, I'm Leading The Way sense) involved in the evolution of English usage over the years? That people generally adopt these differences of convention un- or sub-consciously based on the language of those they grow up around, those they spend time communicating with?

Do you understand that whatever set of conventions you consider to be definitive, to be correct, are the accident of history? That every single person speaking English three hundred years ago was, by implication, speaking it incorrectly?

A natural language is a fractured collection of overlapping or contradicting conventions developed over time and space by people committing the crime of unselfconsciously speaking and writing in the course of their daily lives. The motive force of millions or billions of people interacting verbally with one another is many, many orders of magnitude more powerful than that of declarations of correct vs. incorrect usage; the idea that there is, that there can be some Standard (rather than, more reasonably, a study of dominant and sub-dominant conventions and trends and regionally/temporally distinct variants and hazy patches of cross-pollenation between) is nuts.

Attractive, maybe; logically appealing; preferable, for some applications; even familiar, when considered in the context of orderly beasts like the constructed and static grammars of programming languages. Granted on every point, depending on the context. But still nuts.

I'm just raising the question of what makes English.

Which (for English and any other natural language) is an interesting and worthy question, and I dig that you want to raise it; but you've been doing a pretty significant disservice to the idea of having an actually meaningful discussion of it so far in your presentation here. Whatever does and doesn't make English, it's not nitpicks or declarations about the failure of native speakers to hew to some unidentified source of Truth.
posted by cortex at 4:37 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Whatever does and doesn't make English, it's not nitpicks or declarations about the failure of native speakers to hew to some unidentified source of Truth."

Is the subjunctive optional? Some think so. Is the present perfect optional? Again, some think so. But if the concept of English has any meaning, then it has characteristics that define it as such.

Or to put it another way: it's not about the nitpicks as such. It's about identifying what the nature of the thing is by identifying when something is not-that-concept.

Anglo-Saxon of 900 A.D. is not English and throwing in French didn't make it English, either. But somewhere along the line, it became a language in its own right, distinctive from its predecessors so that it was properly called by another name. We certainly are at that stage now; we're not speaking French or Anglo-Saxon here.

But if it is a concept that is distinct from others, we can identify it. And I say that it's more than whatever some majority says it is. And I think that multiplying the dialects until we have complete coverage is worse than the alternative.

Say, for example, that a majority of native speakers cannot keep lay and lie straight. Can we say that they are, ahem, mistaken? Or do we say that there is a dialect they are speaking that permits this? If so, then at this point, I've got arguments for dialects for subjunctive, present perfect, and lay/lie usage. By then, I wouldn't think that creating dialects is a valuable idea. Then I'd say that identifying a standard English usage might be in order.
posted by A-Train at 5:41 PM on February 11, 2008


Can we say that they are, ahem, mistaken? Or do we say that there is a dialect they are speaking that permits this?

You can look at the lay/lie distinction and the collapse as same as a narrative rather than a black-and-white Mistake Or Not argument and get a lot more mileage out of it.

What's a mistake? A violation of some intrinsic grammatical truth, or the violation of an existing language convention? I reject the former outright on account of the idea of said fixed, abstract truth being a load of bull.

So, okay: if at point x in history (a difficult point to nail down, as your link attests) everybody but Joe says "lie", and Joe says "lay"? We could reasonably say that this is a mistake—Joe has misanalyzed the conventional usage of those around him. He has acquired a different convention for lay/lie than previously existed.

If Joe's children and their friends and neighbors and so on acquire this usage from Joe, who is consistent in his use—if they correctly analyze and acquire Joe's usage—has there been a mistake? Their language centers are functioning just fine; they're learning language the same way every single person on the planet does; they're merely exposed to a very slightly different subset of conventions, with Joe as a vector.

If the usage becomes common in Joe's neighborhood, among people who are two or three generations of acquisition away from Joe, is it still a mistake? If it becomes common in his county? His region? In his country? Among speakers in various disparate nations? If it becomes the most common conventional usage among speakers? At which point does it stop being a mistake and start being a convention?

And which are your favorite totems of the true English language, the parts that have always and will always be used exactly as they are right now?

It's an absurd argument. I cannot buy the complaint that variations in convention, and the evolution of same, are unacceptable because they create Too Many Dialects; for one, I'm not sure (in the sense that "dialect" is used by linguists) that it's even a coherent argument, but more importantly I don't even get the objection. Language has to be simple? English can't contain variation and still be discussed as a language? Is Black American English not English, if distinct in some points of convention?
posted by cortex at 6:02 PM on February 11, 2008



Anglo-Saxon of 900 A.D. is not English and throwing in French didn't make it English, either. But somewhere along the line, it became a language in its own right, distinctive from its predecessors so that it was properly called by another name. We certainly are at that stage now; we're not speaking French or Anglo-Saxon here.

But if it is a concept that is distinct from others, we can identify it. And I say that it's more than whatever some majority says it is. And I think that multiplying the dialects until we have complete coverage is worse than the alternative.



Why are you posturing as if you're some kind of spokesman for Truth, Justice, and One True English Language? You have prejudices about what's right and what's wrong; that's fine, so does everyone else. But you also have this idea that somehow, someone's prejudices have to be right OR ELSE. It's a totally nonsensical position: English wasn't handed to us from on high, it wasn't discovered by astronomers, it was worked out--and is still being worked out--over thousands of years by millions of speakers, readers, and writers. You want objective rules that are "more than" that? Who gets to choose? Let's take a passage from Dryden, who was once considered THE major authority on correct usage and style:
It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy ingag'd the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe. While these vast floating bodies, on either side, mov'd against each other in parallel lines, and our Country men, under the happy conduct of his Royal Highness, went breaking, by little and little, into the line of the Enemies; the noise of the Cannon from both Navies reach'd our ears about the City: so that al men, being alarm'd with it, and in a dreadful suspence of the event, which we knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the Town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some cross the River, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence.
("Essay of Dramatick Poesie," 1668)
Clearly, Dryden is borderline illiterate. I mean, would you look at that run-on sentence? That weird capitalization? The overuse of contractions? That colon is out of place, and that last semicolon should have a complete clause after it. Not to mention, "suspense" is spelled wrong, "countrymen" should be one word, "al" needs an extra "l," and there's a usage error with "wherein."

Of course, you say, you can't judge 1668 by the standards of 2008, right? But that means the burden is on you to show when the supposedly objective rules of grammar and usage came to have transhistorical validity. Yes, we speak English and not Anglo-Saxon; but Edmund Spenser is "Modern English," and yet it takes training to comprehend many of his verses. Would you argue that Victorian prescriptivists set the rules for all English writing thenceforth? If so, you're making a mistake: many of them, guided by a foolish classicism, merely translated equivalent rules in Latin grammar into English, with no regard for the uniquenesses of English usage. Many of those rules that you so eagerly cite are a product of that attempt.

In which case, you're defending an absurdity. Why are fourth-century Latin speakers more qualified to set the rules of English circa 2008 than we are?
posted by nasreddin at 6:11 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think we should all go back to capitalizing all Nouns.
posted by oddman at 11:03 PM on February 11, 2008


we have a circular argument for why native speakers can't be mistaken: they're right because they're native speakers and native speakers define the spoken language.

Linguistics defines the "rules" of a language this way: The "rules" of language X at time T are, by definition, whatever rules are used by (most?) native speakers of that language at time T. There are no rules of language X beyond those obeyed by its native speakers; if a rule ceases to be obeyed, it ceases to be a rule.

Accepting this definition, if a given usage is used by (a majority of?) native speakers at a time, it is obeying the "rules" of the language (as linguistics understands the idea of "rules").


That's not a circular argument. It's arguing from a definition, drawing out a consequence of that definition. Now, maybe you disagree with the definition, or you think further argument for the definition is needed, fair enough. But a number of your objections to it are baseless.

It doesn't imply that native speakers can never be mistaken. To change the rule, there needs to be some substantial percentage of the speakers in an area all changing their usage -- it can't just be one guy.

And it doesn't degenerate into saying that each person speaks their own private language (one language per person).

Consider biological species by analogy. The individual organisms in a species are each going to be slightly different. More pressingly, species evolve over time, gradually growing new features and losing old ones until finally the population has enough differences that biologists call it a new species. Linguists classify languages by the same sort of method -- there will be borderline cases, but that doesn't invalidate the concept of these groupings ("species" or "language"). Our concept of "species" is very handy, just like our concept of "language", even if the real-world phenomena may not be classes (Finch Species 1 vs. Finch Species 2, or Standard American English vs. British English) that are absolutely distinct with no fuzzy edges.

Most of our concepts and categories are like this -- a central core with some fuzzy edges. That's not a threat to anything but a more naive platonism than Plato ever held.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:32 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think a good analogy to this is the idea that some people speak "without an accent." I've heard this said of Californians in the U.S. My response is that certainly their ancestors would have spoken with an accent, so what caused the disappearance of that accent? What original accent was it that gradually over the years developed into a non-accent, and why? And of course a Californian would definitely have an accent from the perspective of a Brit or an Australian.

A Californian might have an accent closest to an averaging of modern U.S. accents but that's not the same thing as not having an accent. There isn't a One True Inflection, therefore everyone has an accent.
posted by XMLicious at 11:53 PM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Me, I'm just pleased to discover that cortex is another of us language-weenies. *does the sekrit handshake*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:28 AM on February 12, 2008


XMLicious: really? Growing up in South Dakota, I was always told that that was true about South Dakotans, and that that was why a perversely disproportionate number of TV news anchors came from SD.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:08 AM on February 12, 2008


Many locales think that about themselves, that they don't have accents. I've met people from New York with total goombah accents who don't think they have an accent.

I've been to SD a few times but I don't remember speech being particularly non-accented, though I remember there wasn't an especially strong accent. Picking out the Californians as not having accents in U.S. English is something I've heard from other people here in New England.

But if I'm correct that “no accent” is really just the most average accent within a larger group, it would make sense that in general the further West you go the less of an accent there would be. Since Western states were settled by a mixture of people from Eastern and Southern states (and Canadians, and immigrants, etc.)
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 PM on February 12, 2008


Just to clarify: everybody has an accent. There is no such thing as "no accent". In America, when we talk of somebody having "no accent" or "less of an accent", what we often mean to say is that person/group speaks the Standard American English dialect. This is true for all areas generally—the standard is the unmarked variety, but it is by no means nonexistent.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:00 PM on February 12, 2008


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