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. “metholodogy” = methodology (?)

    Standard usage in information systems – as in a
    “systems development methodology”



  2. This is going to be a feast, I can see!

    I’ve fixed the typo, thanks Martin, and I agree that Info Systems seems to have standardised the use of “methodology” for “method” to the point where it would be unreasonable for any individual to deviate.

    I’ll rewrite the agenda point to get this correct. Also, over at CT, it’s been pointed out that FWIW is not a true acryonym.

  3. I think that everyone knew what you meant in each case. My ten year old stunned everyone by coming out with completely adult comments in perfect context over and over from the age of three. She would often then ask “what does that mean”? We called her “three going on thirty”. It is amazing how the brain works,.. and doesn’t work sometimes. There are some classic blogger typos, and the flipping of letter pairs would be the most common. Key multistrikes would be another. Anyone got any more.

  4. In my view, ‘method’ is how you do something whereas ‘methodology’ is the study (especially in the comparative sense) of methods. We must fight against the loss of this distinction.

    In my dialect, the word ‘aggravate’ can carry either of the meanings mentioned (‘annoy’ or ‘make worse’) and one can easily distinguish the meanings by context.

    “Don’t aggravate your sister.”
    “Don’t aggravate your injury by training before it is healed.”

    I’ve never really understood what the phrase “begs the question” means.

  5. Surely “begs the question” means “seeks further answers” with the implication that “all is not yet revealed” in the sense that there is deliberate concealment.

  6. My pet bug at the moment is ‘alternate’ instead of ‘alternative’. I think that in the US the word ‘alternative’ is already lost. As a result, we’re losing it here too. Merriam-Webster online allows the same meaning for both words. None of my UK or Australian dictionaries do.

    A lot of people use ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’.

    And I’ll never forget my surprise once when a Canadian airline pilot announced that we would be landing in Hawaii ‘momentarily’. Not sure if that meaning has taken off in Oz?

  7. And then one can be wrong.

    Begs the Question:
    An argument that improperly assumes as true the very point the speaker is trying to argue for is said in formal logic to “beg the question.” Here is an example of a question-begging argument: “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.” The speaker is simply asserting the worthlessness of the work,…

    Perhaps the most important outcome is to extract the intended meaning from the text however the words are used.

  8. The further one looks the more there is.


    1. to ask for as a gift, as charity, or as a favor: to beg alms; to beg forgiveness.
    2. to ask (someone) to give or do something; implore: He begged me for mercy. Sit down, I beg you.
    3. to take for granted without basis or justification: a statement that begs the very point we’re disputing.
    4. to fail or refuse to come to grips with; avoid; evade: a report that consistently begs the whole problem.
    –verb (used without object) 5. to ask alms or charity; live by asking alms.
    6. to ask humbly or earnestly: begging for help; begging to differ.
    7. (of a dog) to sit up, as trained, in a posture of entreaty.
    —Verb phrase8. beg off, to request or obtain release from an obligation, promise, etc.: He had promised to drive us to the recital but begged off at the last minute.
    —Idioms9. beg the question, to assume the truth of the very point raised in a question.
    10. go begging, to remain open or available, as a position that is unfilled or an unsold item: The job went begging for lack of qualified applicants.”

    To use “begs the question” in place of “raises the question” is to invite a variety of interpretations. And that can be a good thing. It is more poetic.

    There are many “begging” expressions
    beg your pardon
    beg to differ
    went begging
    begged off
    beg forgiveness

    and all use “beg” in a variety of ways. So to be precise one would “raise a question”, and to create a whole new blog thread one would “beg a question”.

  9. Despite this, I’m going to guess that the technical use will win out in the long run.

    Define the long term? Polysemy is rampant within our language, probably always has been and probably always will be.

    Try discussing inflation with an economist of the Austrian school and you will find one example instantly. If you’re smart and they’re smart then you’ll straighten out some set of agreed semantics before getting bogged down in the technical debate.

    Every child knows that milk is something you drink, whilst every dairy farmer also knows that is something you do early in the morning. In the long term perhaps the technical term will prevail. However I somehow doubt it.

  10. John,

    If you specify a time and some criterion – a hard thing I know, I’ll make a bet with you that ‘begging the question’ moves further towards it’s media definition than it is now.

  11. The other day I heard a shop assistant in Melbourne (not American, and not Canadian, to judge by her accent) say “I’ll be with you momentarily”. So yes, as per Melanie’s comment at #9, that usage is cropping up here too.

    I fear we’ve lost the battle to use “disinterested” in its correct meaning. Another barbarism that’s extremely common, and that really gets my goat, is “perception” employed to mean merely “interpretation”, “supposition”, or even “viewpoint”.

  12. Terje, I fully approve of the switch to the American billion which is much more useful than the English billion (= million million = trillion in modern usage) which it displaced. It’s consistent (oddly enough given the US rejection of the metric system) with the more general metric system standard of a new unit for each factor of a thousand. Otherwise, for example, we’d have to talk about a car scheme costing “six thousand two hundred million” instead of 6.2 billion.

  13. “six thousand two hundred million” instead of 6.2 billion.” or, much simpler, 6.2 milliard.

    1 milliard = 1000 million.

    1 billion = 1000 milliard.

  14. My bête noir is the misuse of “refute”. It does not mean “deny” or even “disprove”. But I seem to be fighting a lost battle – most people seem oblivious to the difference between showing a proposition is empirically untrue and showing that it does not follow from its premises (perhaps this is partly because of the misuse of “refute”).

    John makes a good general point, though – descriptivist arguments for blurring terms have force when there is no good alternative description of the thing we are referring to, but otherwise we are just blurring distinctions unnecessarily. And such distinctions are often useful to communication.

  15. My pet peeves are the misuse of ‘disinterested’ as a useless synonym of ‘uninterested’, and the increasing use of the bizarre ‘mitigate against’ where what is meant is ‘militate against’. Both battles appear lost.

  16. I’ve always found “begging the question” a rather odd term. My reason is that while it denotes a technical fault with an argument, it has a kind of psychological favour, that you are driven to question the assumption. I guess this is because to “beg” is now used to indicate a dire need, as in “beg on bended knee” and the older sense of (simply) asking is more-or-less lost from common usage, existing now mainly in old fashioned phrases like “beg your pardon.” I guess the Oxford dons who named the parts of logic may have begged each other to pass the mustard.

    From this perspective, something more neutral like “asking the question” would make more sense.

    Don’t get me started on methodology. It seems to be regularly used in situations where just a little methodology would actually demonstrate that methods were wanting.

  17. John – I’m happy enough with the US billion now that the deed is done.

    It is worth noting that metric is on the increase in the USA. It is being held back by some perverse federal laws that currently ban metric only labelling despite many sectors of the economy wanting to make the shift to metric only packaging.

    In terms of government intervention the Australian shift to metric is one that I find little difficulty in supporting. Even if the enabling legislation had all lapsed after a decade industry was never likely to switch back. Likewise for Swedens decision to change from driving on the left to driving on the right. Both are a shift between two separate Nash equilibriums and entail no real enduring coersion.

  18. I also regret the muddling of the meaning of “beg the question”. The increasingly common use of “enormity” as a synonym for “a great magnitude” is also disappointing. Because this one is being muddled it can be hard to know what is meant at the moment. When discussing the enormity of a team’s loss, does the commentator mean its magnitude or its disastrous nature? Of course if the discussion turns to the enormity of the other side’s win we have our bearings.

  19. 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.

  20. 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

  21. #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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