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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Where it’s written

Now, I’m not by any means a grammar snob. I tend to go for writing that’s easy to read and more conversational than precisely according to, uh, Fowler.

I try to use “that” and “which” correctly, but I must admit that I occasionally drop in a comma so I can use “which” to make a sentence flow better.

And readers of this column know that I’m entirely too fond of ... (three little dots) and — (the em dash) to please purists.

But there are some recent fads in usage that are driving even me crazy.

Let’s start with “begs the question.”

The correct use of this term — which goes back to Aristotle — is to describe a question in which an assumption is made that makes the question moot.

“When did you stop beating your wife?” is a good example.

That sentence begs the question of beating her by assuming that you did.

Another example:

“If an editorial argues that same-sex marriage is wrong because ‘marriage is a bond between a man and a woman,’ the editorial assumes that marriage can only be between a man and a woman — the very notion that same-sex marriage calls into question. The editorial thus begs the question.”

But what we are hearing and reading now is the phrase being substituted for “raising the question,” as in “The debate begs the question of whether the bill is constitutional or not.”

It’s just plain wrong, but it’s becoming so common that it won’t be long before some language observers put it into the correct usage category.

Just as was the case with “restaurateur” and “restauranteur,” the incorrect usage overtakes the correct one and winds up in the dictionary as an “alternate” usage.

Phooey!

Another one that annoys me is “less” versus “fewer.” If it’s a number, it’s fewer ... that’s my rule.

Here’s another one that is so often misused that’s it’s become almost a standard: “hone in on.” No, it’s “HOME in on!” It originally came from homing pigeons, but then morphed into the idea of following a radio beam or other signal to a target, as in “the missile homed in on the jet’s exhaust.”

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion of “literally.”

That’s been misused so often that the Oxford English Dictionary changed its definition a couple of years ago to reflect the change. It now reads: “informally, (literally) can be ‘used for emphasis rather than being actually true’ such as ‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing.’”

Sorry, OED, that’s just silly.

Back in the old days, dictionaries were used to describe the language in use, but then choose a “correct” usage and spelling to help achieve uniformity in a language that was still largely idiosyncratic.

Then, for a long time, they held the line against too-rapid change, only grudgingly adding new words and changing definitions.

Nowadays, it seems to me, those who compile them are anxious to be “current” and move to alter meanings and spellings as soon as they appear on the Internet or in Tweets.

OMG, what are we coming to?

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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