Being an editor, it is perhaps not surprising I have a lot of pet peeves regarding use of the English language.
It still bugs the heck out of me when people misuse the word comprise, for example. I say misuse because I am old school. Comprise literally means consists of, so to say something ‘is comprised of’ is to say ‘is consists of of,’ which is obviously grammatically incorrect.
English evolves, however, as my young reporters are fond of reminding me. Grammarians are now divided on whether ‘is comprised of’ is permissible simply because it has become so commonly used even among people who ought to know better.
What bothers me about the so-called evolution of English is imprecision.
Take the expression “the proof is in the pudding.” Most native speakers understand this to mean the proof of the success of something is the final result.
But that is not what is says when used like that.
It begs the question—actually it doesn’t at all, but I will get to the abuse of that phrase later—the proof of what is in the pudding? Is the proof the pudding is pudding in the pudding, or is the proof the pudding is good in the pudding?
If either of those is the case, is the proof actually in the pudding or is it in the testing or tasting or eating of the pudding.
In fact, that is the original, much more precise and meaningful saying: The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Getting back to begging the question, most people misuse the expression the way I did earlier, meaning it raises or invites a question.
Begging the question is actually a logical fallacy in which an argument’s premise assumes the truth of its conclusion rather than supporting it. It is a form of circular reasoning.
The pudding is good because it is pudding.
A quick and dirty tip from the American author and philosopher Joseph Bottum: “A handy rule of thumb for writers and copy-editors: If what follows “begs the question” is an actual question, you’re probably misusing the phrase “begs the question.”
Nevertheless, a case could be made this is simply harmless linguistic evolution. After all, as long as we all understand each other isn’t that the important thing? And why can’t a phrase or word have multiple meanings?
The word ‘set’ alone has 430 different meanings and/or senses.
It is kind of a double-edged sword. It makes English simultaneously rich and versatile and wildly confusing.
I’m trying to let go of my peeves, but I still can’t help thinking these and numerous others are less evolution and more degradation.
Some people think the degradation of English is a failure of the education system in instilling youth with an understanding of logic and critical thinking skills. I think it’s probably more just natural human laziness and lack of curiosity.
Either way it is concerning because as the world becomes more and more complex, it is more important than ever before for people to have the necessary skills to recognize circular reasoning, specious and spurious arguments, unsubstantiated assertions, the difference between correlation and causation and all the other logical fallacies we’re constantly bombarded with in the age of social media.
It’s a shame too, because most of us currently have at our fingertips access to virtually the entirety of cumulative human knowledge.
That being said, I do understand how a Google search for “Twiggy the waterskiing squirrel” can be more appealing than one for “Socrates’ Sophistical Refutations.”