Grammar Slammer

English so wrong it’s right

If you misuse something long and often enough, it may eventually become “right”

By Raechelle Wilson

Language is not static. It’s a constantly evolving thing. Words come and go, rules change and develop strange exceptions. Quite often, the biggest language influencers are not the experts, but people who have no idea what they’re talking about. In English, if you misuse something long and often enough, it will eventually become “right.”

Begging the question

The other day I was reading a book review in the New York Times written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning academic, when I came across this statement:

“It begs the question of what kind of Union the war was being fought to preserve.”

If you do a Google news search for “begs the question,” you will be inundated with thousands of examples of people – educated people writing for largely reputable news outlets – misusing this phrase.

But begging the question is actually a type of logical fallacy where you assume the initial point in a premise: A implies B and A is only valid because B is assumed. This can get pretty complex, but very simply:

“I like chocolate because it tastes good.”

Begs the question (which employs an archaic sense of “beg”) was never meant to be a substitute for “raises the question” or “the question begs to be asked.” However, because of the proliferation of this particular abuse, this “new” meaning is gaining ground. According to one of my favorite grammarians, Grammar Girl, “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’.”

But just to be on the safe side, if you’re about to pose a question, don’t “beg” it first.

Irregardless

Oh, man. Use this around a grammar snob and you’re likely to get an earful. A classic double negative, “irregardless” means quite the opposite of what most users intend: regardless. But it’s not entirely wrong. Grammar Girl explains this and other mysteries:  “‘Irregardless’ is a bad word and a word you shouldn’t use, but it is a word. ‘Floogetyflop’ isn’t a word—I just made it up and you have no idea what it means. ‘Irregardless,’ on the other hand, is in almost every dictionary labeled as nonstandard. You shouldn’t use it if you want to be taken seriously, but it has gained wide enough use to qualify as a word.”

Yikes.

Chill out, dude

Have you ever noticed that “proper” English makes you sound like a bore? Well, maybe it’s time to relax. One doesn’t have all day to review one’s rules, after all.

The folks over at Grammarphobia have given us some great examples of stuffy rules that are, thankfully, falling by the wayside. Here are a few of our favorites:

Data is only a plural noun

“It’s time to admit that data has joined agenda, erotica, insignia, opera, and other technically plural Latin and Greek words that have become thoroughly Anglicized as singular nouns taking singular verbs. No plural form is necessary, and the old singular form, datum, can be left to the Romans.”

It is I

“It’s OK to use It is me, That’s him, It’s her, and similar constructions, instead of using the grammatically correct but more stuffy It is I, That’s he, and It’s she.”

Who vs whom

We can’t dump whom entirely, at least not just yet. But many modern grammarians believe that in conversation or informal writing, who is acceptable in place of whom at the beginning of a sentence or clause (a clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb): Who’s the package for? You’ll never guess who I ran into the other day.

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