Thursday, October 13, 2005

That Literally Begs the Question: Is Literacy Dead?

When people use words or phrases incorrectly, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. I practically feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. I don’t have that much of an issue with grammar – I think I’ve grown out of that. Do you use ain’t? Do you put the preposition at the end of the sentence? Do you use who when you should be using whom? These things don’t bother me…heck, I can’t keep that last one straight most of the time. Recently, though, I’ve noticed a few trends when we communicate with each other. And they really bother me. Why? I don’t know, but I think it’s because we’re trying to communicate! How are we supposed to communicate with each other, when people don’t know what they’re talking about?

For example, lately, I've been hearing people use the term "begging the question" in reference to suggesting or raising a question: The fact that so many people use poor grammar begs the question: are our schools doing their job? I began to get this weird nagging in the back of my mind that became a little louder each time I heard the phrase used that way. An uncomfortable feeling, telling me, “no…that’s not right.”

So I looked it up, and remembered from my college Logic classes – that’s not what “begging the question” means. Begging the question is a logical fallacy (a flaw in a logical argument). Like ad hominem (“attack the man” – where you respond to an argument, not by attacking the argument, but the person making it – see many political debates), or hasty generalization (where you make assumptions on an entire population based on a small group; a lot of prejudice and racism comes from this one). Begging the question is when you assume the conclusion in your premise. (Stay with me on this, it’s important.) For example, if I were to say, “You shouldn’t judge people by the way they talk because you’re not supposed to do that,” then in my premise (you’re not supposed to judge people), I am assuming my conclusion to be true (you shouldn’t judge people). In other words, you shouldn’t judge people, because you shouldn’t judge people. Whew. I just had to get that out. [Note: if you are a logic geek like me and want further reading, you could probably just google “beg the question”, but here are some interesting links anyway: World Wide Words and The Mavens’ Word of the Day (both treatments of the same topic, but more in depth).]

And what’s up with people using the word literally wrong? I received an e-mail today that talked about thousands of people that are “literally spread across the Huntsville area map.” I couldn’t get out of my head this giant map, a huge butter knife and…well, I’ll just stop there. A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a software class, and the instructor told us (as we were nearing the end of the day), “We’re literally sliding into home plate.” I’m glad I didn’t get any dirt on my khakis. It’s bad enough that people are using phrases to mean something they never did, but to use a word when they mean it’s opposite? It’s apparent that in both cases, they wanted to emphasize the figurative language, but couldn’t they have just used the word “really?” Maybe that’s just the new definition of literally…

*This blog blogged with MS Word.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for correcting me. My mistake was somewhat different from the one you describe, but I'm glad to understand this better.