The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its autumn assizes with a petition from Richard A. Kamprath of Buffalo asking for a ruling on "begs the question." He is joined by Susan Iverson of Eugene, Ore., and Michael Pruden of Port Townsend, Wash.
The plaintiffs offer in evidence an interview with actor James Garner: "As a man who's spent 60 percent of his career in TV, Garner says he's basically a three-take actor; after that it starts to go downhill, which begs the question of how he coped with the famously demanding William Wyler on 'The Children's Hour.' "
Another exhibit comes from a review of Robert Parker's novel based on the life of famed lawman Wyatt Earp. Other frontier characters may have been more colorful than Earp, "but only Wyatt has a full-fledged, self-contained story that begs enduring questions of justice, courage and retribution."
The court will add an exhibit of its own, in the form of a headline over a story about longevity in the United States: "Longer life span begs question, 'Is there an upper limit?' "
As examples of the correct use of "to beg the question," the exhibits are useless. They illustrate how not to employ the phrase. The citations illustrate the court's abiding conviction that Gresham's law works on language just as it works on currency: Bad usages drive out the good ones. In recent years the phrase has been so corrupted that it now means "to raise a question" or "to evade an answer," which is not at all what "to beg a question" has meant for the past 400 years.
This is what it means: It means fallaciously to assume a premise that has not been proved. An excellent illustration comes from a writer's best friend, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage:
"Suppose you are a member of a debating team faced with the task of upholding the positive side of a stirring proposition, such as, 'Resolved, that the 17-year locust is a harmful creature.' Now after listening to an opponent talk about the charm and rarity of the critters, you electrify your audience with a series of proposals for counteracting the damage done by the locusts.
"The audience cheers, but the judges give you a bad mark. What you have done is assume that the locust is a harmful creature and go on from there instead of proving that it is a harmful creature. You have used a fallacious argument."
The court will not shilly-shally. It will enter an injunction absolutely forbidding the use of "to beg the question" in every context except classical debate. Next case!
Cynthia Gallaher of Chicago submits a sentence from a press release describing a diet for losing weight: "All tolled, the employees lost over 13,000 pounds over the course of the program." She asks, is it "all told" or "all tolled"? The court rules in favor of "all told," meaning "all counted," though "all tolled" has a plausible ring. When a curfew tolls the knell of parting day, as Thomas Gray observed, the bell is counting the hours. (The court will rule in passing that "more than 13,000 pounds" would have been better than "over 13,000 pounds," but no matter how it's phrased, a loss of 13,000 pounds is impressive.)
A familiar petition comes from Katherine Finnigan, a high school teacher in Tacoma, Wash. She regularly hears it said that someone "graduated high school," and asks the court to put an end to the truncated phrase. Motion granted! It is not the student who graduates the high school; it is the high school that graduates the student. Thus, last June Maria was graduated from high school, and Vassar graduated 624 seniors.
Donald H. Kline of Raleigh, N.C., asks the court to resolve the problem of "aren't I," as in, "I'm on the wrong road, aren't I?" On its face, the verb is impossible. No one would ask, "Are I on the wrong road?" Merriam-Webster uses the example of "I'm a little late, aren't I?" and deems the usage on its way to respectability both here and in Great Britain. Some years ago this court rejected "am I not?" as unbearably prissy, and tried instead to sell "amn't I." It didn't take. Now, the court overrules its previous opposition and finds the colloquialism acceptable in speech and casual writing. The court is getting mellower all the time.
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is email@example.com.