Mona Charen

My children have started to become exacting grammarians. David, 15, is driven nearly crazy every time someone misuses the expression "beg the question." It's a good thing he is away on a band trip this week and didn't catch a CNN report on the morning news. A story on the financial situation was phrased like this: "This begs the question: What happened to the TARP money?"

If David had been watching, he would have scowled at the screen and, voice raised, corrected the reporter. "It doesn't 'beg' the question. It presents or suggests or poses the question. To beg the question is to avoid or circumvent it!" David is mostly right. Beg the question is widely misused. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words (worldwidewords.org) responded to a reader who asked whether it was ever correct to use the meaning David disdains. His answer is comprehensive. "You can easily find examples of the sense you quote, which is used just as though one might say 'prompt the question' or 'forces one to ask' … This meaning of the phrase seems to have grown up because people have turned for a model to other phrases in beg, especially the well-known I beg to differ, where beg is a fossil verb that actually used to mean 'humbly submit'. But the way we use beg to differ these days makes beg the question look the same as 'wish to ask'. It doesn't -- or at least, it didn't. ... The meaning you give is ... gaining ground, and one or two recent dictionaries claim that it is now acceptable -- the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, says it is 'widely accepted in modern standard English'. I wouldn't go so far myself."

I'm delighted and a little surprised that my publicly educated boys are learning grammar at all. When I attended public school, grammar was completely out of style. I suppose the geniuses at Teachers College (whose views infect all of American education) thought it would stunt our creativity to learn how to diagram a sentence. In any case, most of my school cohorts didn't come across words like gerund or past participle until we studied a foreign language in eighth grade! My 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Payne, was kind enough to spend several after-school hours teaching me the basics of grammar because I asked. But that was an extracurricular exception for an eccentric.


Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
 
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