Question Begging

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Others have addressed this topic before, in places with way more reach than this blog (like the New York Times. Ken Jennings wrote a bit about this a while back. So did Grammar Girl. There is even this.) So I’m not sure how much good this will do, but this one just annoys me too much not to write about.

The phrase “begs the question” is commonly used to mean “leads one to ask.” Even by people who should know better or by writers whose editors should know better. (e.g.here and here).  That is not really what it means. Or at least: that is not what it originally meant. This post is not about prescriptivism. “Begging a question” is when the supposed answer to a question assumes the contested fact or premise that the question is asking about. For some examples, try this and this). 

The first problem with the newer use is that it is a form of cliche or dead metaphor. It sounds evocative, like the statements already made are pleading with you to ask the next question. But like all etiolated phrases, it is really a weak placeholder for a more precise, original, or interesting use of language. It is an elision of more rigorous thought or explanation.

The second problem with this use is that it obscures the original fallacy. And it’s an important fallacy to be aware of, because it’s a common rhetorical trick, especially favored by politicians, as a way of shutting off argument, shifting the frame of an argument to one more favorable to them, or obscuring the lack of evidence to support a proposition.

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Quasi- & Pseudo-

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Often used interchangeably as prefixes, but there’s an important difference: “quasi-” means “almost,” and “pseudo-” means “fake.” A more interesting discussion might be the differences in how “pseudo” and “faux” are used, which is a little more complicated.

To see the difference between “quasi-” and “pseudo-,” consider the difference between a quasi-experiment and pseudoscience.

Chandler on Hammett

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“And there are still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini. These are the flustered old ladies–of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages–who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.”

-Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder