Begging questions

Does someone approaching the cash register beg the question, “Did you find everything OK?” Does a diner in a restaurant beg the question, “How is everything tasting?” And if there are two diners, does the second one beg the question, “… and yourself?”

The answer is no, and not only because the expressions are as misguided as they are ubiquitous. Yourself is a needless overcorrection of the more usual pronoun, probably because you is thought to be too crude or invasive, not suitably deferential. But then why the strange locution How is everything tasting?, which undoes what the word yourself attempted, the phrase invading your personal space, practically intruding on your tongue, getting all up in your grill. As for Did you find everything OK?, the phrase might be credited for its use of syllepsis, the word “find” doing double duty, referring both to the act of locating something and the abstract idea of an impression or feeling. But maybe in places of overwork and undercompensation words just have to work twice as hard?

In any case, nothing “begs the question” this way. The phrase, in fact, has become one of the sorriest misuses to have recently climbed from grammatical purgatory to common acceptance. How better to gauge this verbal ascension than to scan our most respected cultural publications? When this writer first noted the expression “begging question” in a recent issue of the New Yorker, it seemed the magazine was hedging its bets, acknowledging the creeping legitimacy of the phrase but balking at its replication. In last month’s March 28 issue, however, the phrase achieves a kind of grammatical consecration. This happens in the “Shouts and Murmurs” column, on page 33, and the text is signed Suzanna Wolff. The column’s premise that week is the satirical description of a number of humorously bad wireless internet plans, with absurd names ranging from the “TV-Buff-Infuriating Buffer Plan” to the “Thrill-Seeker Triple-Refresh Bundle.” One especially frustrating wi-fi service is mockingly touted as follows: “Get away from it all with this Internet connection, which begs the question, “Do I actually need to be in contact with the outside world?”

Maybe the author’s satire justifies the misuse of the expression. But the offending phrase isn’t attributed to the service providers she mocks, it belongs to the language of the satirist herself. A margin of uncertainty remains, though, as in the elusive narrative voice of Flaubert’s style indirect libre. Who’s speaking here? The author from a lofty arbiter of culture? Or a hapless anybody, their vernacular snarky and cynical?

A recent story in The Guardian makes the case that grammar prescriptivists wage war on the language of the underprivileged, and that the conventions they defend are often “unimportant.” The phrase “begging the question,” however, is hardly insignificant. It means that a speaker’s argument includes a premise that assumes the conclusion. The “question” at stake in the phrase is that questionable assumption; a person “begs the question” when they have overlooked or tried to hide a false premise through circular reasoning or sheer deviousness.

No doubt this fine point of forensics is lost in the headlong forward rush of news coverage and social media commentary. Who has time to look back and reconsider their question begging, their prejudices and false assumptions, the historical legacy of unpaid debts and unmourned lives? In contemporary politics, there’s no looking back, which seems why even in the rhetoric of nostalgia, America’s so-called former greatness isn’t asserted in substantive claims but instead by piling query upon query, not so as to substantiate a claim, but as if, to use the current parlance, we were begging those questions: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? … When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?” (Donald Trump, Tuesday, June 16, 2015).





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Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

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