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 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 cohort didn’t come across words like gerund or past participle until we studied a foreign language in eighth grade! My eleventh-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.
Ben, 13, was actually given an extra-credit project in English: Find an example of incorrect grammar or usage in your daily life. He wanted to snap a photo of the checkout line at the supermarket that reads “15 items or less.” It should be “fewer,” of course. I suggested one that grates like fingernails on a blackboard every time I hear it. When you renew your prescriptions at our pharmacy, a recorded voice asks for the prescription number. After you enter it you hear: “The prescription you entered is associated with the name C-H-A-R. If this is the first four letters of your last name, press 1.” AGGGGHH! I respond with only marginally less anguish when I hear “enormity” misused. Enormity is a fine word meaning (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) “The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness . . . 2) a monstrous offense or evil . . .” It just happens to sound like “enormous.” And so you will hear members of Congress, TV pundits, and others use phrases such as “the enormity of the crisis we face.” No.
I don’t want to discourage my kids’ fastidiousness about language. But the truth is that language is always changing, and that sometimes the sheer weight and momentum of error crash through the ramparts of proper usage and the unacceptable is accepted. This openness has another side as well — receptiveness to all enhancements. English has taken liberally from dozens of other tongues. It has always been this way. The French, Italians, and Germans established learned societies to maintain the purity of their languages. The French to this day are subject to seizures when English words such as “weekend” insinuate themselves into la belle langue. But English just keeps expanding. According to The Economist, the number of words in the English language will pass 1 million at the end of this month, far more than any other language.
By all means, let’s celebrate the flexibility and versatility of English. But please, enormity doesn’t refer to size.