Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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Inkhorns in the past, apostrophes in the future

February 2, 2012

I have two new posts up on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, The fashion for inkhorn terms, continues the discussion of plain English (the blog’s theme for December and January) and looks at some of the reasons language can fail to achieve its main purpose: communication.

In particular, I look at the once-popular ornate style of writing that

combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English. . . .

In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”. But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English . . .

Read on for examples of inkhorn terms that survived and ones that faded.

Next, Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial changes to a company’s style, and I ponder what the future might hold for this troublesome punctuation mark:

Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation . . . .

We may see a trend towards using [the apostrophe] less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint.

This post prompted some fascinating comments, which you can read here. If you’d like to browse my older posts at Macmillan, you can go straight to the archive.


Catachresis and the amusing, awful and artificial cathedral

July 3, 2009

New words arise in several ways. They can be invented, imported from another language, made by mistake, or made by adding to, subtracting from, or mutating an existing word. And sometimes words attain a new meaning just by waiting a while. The technical term for this last phenomenon is catachresis, though the word has other meanings, as we will see. The word catachresis arrived, through the Latin word of the same spelling, from the Greek katakhrēsis, excessive use, from katakhrēsthai, to misuse or use up. Its plural is catachreses, its adjectival forms catachrestic and catachrestical.

Whether or not words formed by catachresis are, strictly speaking, new words depends on how strict you are about such categorisation. Some authorities describe catachresis as the deterioration of a word, but it can also be described more neutrally as semantic drift, which is an inescapable characteristic of any language. As Robert Burchfield wrote in The English Language, “it is best to assume . . . that no single word in the [English] language is a stable, unchanging, and immutable legacy from the past, however fixed, dependable, and definable it may seem at any time.”

St_Paul'sIn Our Language, Simeon Potter illustrates catachresis by reporting that when King James II saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, he described it as amusing, awful, and artificial. The King meant no offence, and presumably none was taken, because those words then denoted pleasing, awesome (i.e. awe-inspiring), and skilfully achieved, respectively. (Note: according to some sources it was Queen Anne who offered the now-puzzling observation.) When Chaucer used nice it meant ignorant or unaware; later it meant fastidious or precise, among other things – the OED has 14 separate entries for the word, differentiated by meaning and historical usage.

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e.g. and i.e.

July 21, 2008

E.g. stands for exempli gratia, Latin for for example. It is used to introduce examples.

I.e. stands for id est, Latin for that is. It is used to introduce a definition or clarification.

Sometimes i.e. is used to introduce examples, but this usage is incorrect. The confusion probably arises from i.e. and e.g. having slightly similar functions.

Although the abbreviations serve their respective purposes adequately, the full English translations that is and for example are also fine in most writing contexts. Indeed, using the full forms helps avoid overuse and confusion.

Neither i.e. nor e.g. is well suited to speech, but both are recommended for parenthetical text (i.e. it is better not to use that is or for example to introduce something in parentheses). Both terms, whether abbreviated or not, are usually preceded by a comma. In American English they are often followed by a comma, and sometimes by a colon.

Something else to watch out for: since e.g. introduces a list that is representative only, it is redundant to conclude the list with etc.