Saturday, July 18, 2009

Some beg you not to beg the question

We all have our pet sayings, yes? You know people who say “you know,” others who rely on “um” or, well, don’t even get me started on “like.” Thing is, any saying can be irritating if it’s used to excess.

Take the ever-popular “bless her heart.” That phrase, with its various permutations (his heart, your heart, etc.) has been used, discussed, trotted out as quintessentially Southern, laughed at and with, reviled and revered for decades, at least. It’s useful, but you must admit that if it’s in every other sentence, it’s tiresome.

Same goes for “sounds like a plan.” Certainly you’ve heard that one; you’ve probably said it. There’s nothing wrong with it … unless, of course, you say “Here’s the plan,” you detail it, and then someone else says, “Sounds like a plan.” Of course it’s a plan. Didn’t you say it’s the plan?

Anyway, it’s repetition that gets to me. I once ate lunch with a very respected and talented reporter friend. While we were eating, he uttered one sentence — and admittedly, he was flustered by something — in which he said: “You know, I mean, you know, uh, you know, this, you know … .” I did the only normal thing. I sat there, transfixed and counting. In that one sentence alone, he said “you know” 19 times. A talented writer, who would never use “you know” in his writing, even once.

Overuse, that’s the key to some of my whining today. Not the actual words, but their overuse. That’s what makes them lose effectiveness. They become irritating. They make diners count up to 19.

I once wrote a whole column on the overuse of “sort of” (, and the same goes for “clearly,” “actually” and “just.” It’s amazing, but people who say any of those (especially “just”) once in a sentence are likely to say it repeatedly, in every sentence: I just hope that you just know that we just need to just just just … help!

If you hear someone say “kind of,” “sort of” or “just,” you should start counting big time. Just for your own secret pleasure, of course. There is something about those particular verbal crutches — once they get their hooks into you, they own you. They rule your speech.

Some words and phrases currently riding high in popularity are “at the end of the day,” “powerful,” “transparent,” “sea change” and — oh, here’s one that’s ubiquitous — “Best. Something. Ever.” Sometimes there is a period after each word, but not always. TV Guide, talking about an online game: “Best. Game. Ever.” On another page: “When Dave met Blago. Worst. Idea. Ever.” And again: “Colbert and McCartney: Best. Interview. Ever.” British YouTube sensation Tom Milsom, announcing a live online show: “Best BlogTv Show Ever.”

There are some phrases, however, that are simply wrong, no matter how infrequently (or frequently) they are used. You know not to say “not hardly,” “can’t hardly” or (as a state senator just said) “cain’t hardly” when you mean “hardly.” So “she can hardly carry that by herself” is correct, whereas “she can’t hardly carry that by herself” means just the opposite from what you want.

Have you ever said, “begs the question,” as in this example from an Associated Press story about a performer appearing on the TV show Dancing With the Stars: “Lil’ Kim had an X-rated public image until she appeared on DWTS. Which begs the question: Is DWTS the new rehab?”

It’s a complicated phrase to judge. It began as a form of logical fallacy, described by Aristotle a very long time ago. Today’s usage is the result of confusion over the translation of “petitio principii,” which literally means “assuming the starting point.” However, “petitio” also means begging; as a result, “this begs the question” may incorrectly be translated as “this begs us, entreats us, to raise and consider the question.”

Even though some recent dictionaries grant that the newer usage is correct (standard), some purists still fight it. There’s even a website ( that offers T-shirts and other merchandise saying, “Oops — you used Beg the Question in an improper way.”

Who’s right? Old fuddy-duddies like Aristotle (bless his heart) or modern linguists, descriptivists who say that language is always changing, so live with it? Hmmm, I’d say it actually, just, you know, like begs the question, clearly.

Mike Clark writes a monthly language column for the News & Record. Reach him at