Print, pixels and prescriptivism

This post on a question-begging argument in favour of carbon taxes and against an emissions trading scheme, naturally raised (!) the question of whether the correct interpretation of a phrase like “begging the question” is determined by the predominant usage or by its original derivation as a technical term in logic or maybe by some other criterion such as the efficiency of communication.

That set me thinking and I turned to the usual research tools Wikipedia and Google to look at how this phrase and a couple of other standard items for debate (“aggravate” and “methodology”) are actually used.

Before I start, I’ll declare my biases. In my view the difference between the “annoy” and “make worse” meanings of “aggravate” is simply one of dialect. There are perfectly good substitutes like “irritate” and “exacerbate” for either meaning. However, in my dialect “aggravate” means “make worse”. The common use of “begs the question” is a natural error, and the technical translation of “petitio principii” is not at all intuitive. Still, there’s no good substitute (“circular argument” doesn’t quite do, in my view). Finally, “methodology” for “method” is indefensible. It’s pretentious, ignorant and wipes out an important (if not always clear-cut) distinction.

Looking at Google (results depend on location so YMMV), I found lots of uses of “aggravate” in its original sense, very few for “annoy” and a fair number of grammar articles explaining the difference, and taking different views on prescription. My guess is that the “annoy” sense is on the way out in spoken as well as written/typed English.

On “begging the question”, I found lots of “raise the question” uses, lots of dispute about the correct use, mostly favouring the technical use (here’s CT’s John Holbo, for example), and not very many correct technical uses. Despite this, I’m going to guess that the technical use will win out in the long run. The main reason is that, given the availability of “raise the question”, users of “beg the question” as a substitute are on a hiding to nothing[1]. At best, the error will pass un-noticed, but there is still nothing gained. At worst, you’ll get picked up on it, and if you try a descriptivist defence, get hammered for that too. This is much more likely to happen on the Internet than if, say, you’re a TV interviewer (where the usage seems to have been popularised), a point to which I’ll return.

Finally, with “methodology”, there are few more correct uses, but a great many more incorrect ones, and only occasional discussion of the issue. What’s more the erroneous uses are predominantly in high-status sources, such as government reports and academic publications, which makes it less likely that users will feel marked as poorly educated (although, in this respect they are). I’d say that the method/methodology distinction is a lost cause, and that we will end up having to use something convoluted like “philosophy of scientific method”. About the only sign of hope here is that “methodological” is much more commonly used correctly, particularly in constructions like “methodological individualism”.

Coming finally to the title of the post, I think that, just as the arrival of print greatly slowed the rate of linguistic drift, the Internet is already acting to discourage misuse of technical terms. On the other hand, I think it’s accelerating the demise of certain kinds of grammar snarks, such as bans on split infinitives or objections to the now-standard uses of “hopefully” (analogous with “fortunately” and many others) and “data” as a mass noun rather than as a Latin plural (compare “agenda”). Finally, FWIW, it’s doing a lot to encourage acceptance of acronyms initialisms.

fn1. A specific kind of no-win situation. Literally, it’s a bet where you can either lose a lot (cop a hiding), or win nothing, for example taking on a contest where you are expected to win easily, so that you gain no credit from victory, and are disgraced by defeat. Language Hat.

29 thoughts on “Print, pixels and prescriptivism

  1. I don’t there is any muddling with the non-technical, or ‘incorrect’, use of ‘begs the question’. Which sense is being used is made completely clear by context. I suppose one possible problem is that those who are not aware of the technical sense might be confused when they come across it.

  2. I don’t there is any muddling with the non-technical, or ‘incorrect’, use of ‘begs the question’. Which sense is being used is made completely clear by context. I suppose one possible problem is that those who are not aware of the technical sense might be confused when they come across it.

    I also recommend this post at Language Log on the history of the alleged disinterested/uninterested distinction

  3. #27. Thanks for the interesting link. I agree with Polly Glot in the comments who says “The distinction between these two words is, we now see, new-ish and useful.”

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