Arrant Pedantry

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Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

A recent Twitter exchange about the term beg the question got me thinking again about the notion of skunked terms. David Ehrlich said that at some point the new sense of beg the question was going to become the correct one, and I said that that point had already come and gone.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s that begging the question is traditionally a type of circular reasoning. Increasingly, though, it’s being used in the newer sense of ‘raising the question’ or ‘demanding that we ask the question’. A couple of years ago, Stan Carey found that the newer sense makes up about 90 percent of the hits in the GloWbE corpus (and the percentage is even higher if you exclude mentions and only count uses).

On Language Log Neal Goldfarb wrote that the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers. On Twitter, many others agreed that the term was skunked, to borrow a term from Bryan Garner.

In his Modern American Usage, Garner writes, “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become ‘skunked.'”

Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change?

In some cases, though, it’s not clear what declaring a word skunked accomplishes. For instance, Garner says that data is skunked because some people object to its use with a plural verb, while others object to its use with a singular. Either way, you might annoy someone. But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.

And sometimes, as with beg the question, it almost seems silly to keep calling a new use skunked. If upwards of 90 percent of the uses of a term are in the new sense (and I suspect it’s even higher in speech), then the battle is all but over. We can’t realistically say that you should avoid using beg the question because it’s ambiguous, because it’s always clear in context. And the new sense certainly isn’t unclear or unfamiliar—how could it be if it’s the one that most people are using? The old sense may be unclear to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case, because it’s a rather technical term. The new use doesn’t change that.

So what it really comes down to is the fact that a very small but very vocal minority don’t like the new use and would rather say that it’s been ruined for everyone than to admit defeat. The question is, should that be enough reason to declare the term off-limits to everybody? Many editors and usage commentators argue that there’s no harm in avoidance, but Geoff Nunberg calls this rationale “the pedant’s veto“: “It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath.” (Arnold Zwicky, somewhat less charitably, calls this rationale “crazies win“.) Nunberg says that this sort of avoidance can be a wise course of action, but other times it seems a bit ridiculous.

Consider, for example, the Economist style guide, which is often mocked for its avoidance of split infinitives. It reads, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Who are all these people who find split infinitives so annoying? And even if there are still a few people who cling to this non-rule, why should everybody else change just to make them happy? Indeed, it seems that most other usage guides have moved on at this point.

Perhaps the biggest problem with declaring a term skunked is that it’s not clear what the criteria are. How many sticklers does it take to skunk a term? How contentious does the debate need to be? And how do we know when it stops being skunked?

I have to wonder, though, if the entire notion of skunked terms is ultimately self-defeating. The people who are most likely to heed a warning to avoid a contentious usage are also the people who are most likely to adhere to traditional usage in the first place. The people who use beg the question in the new sense, for example, are most likely unaware not only of the traditional meaning but also of the fact that there’s a debate about its meaning. If the traditionalists all start avoiding the term, then all that will remain will be the new use. By declaring a term skunked and saying it should be avoided, it could be that all we really accomplish is to drive the old use out even faster.

Ultimately, the question is, how much do we care about the opinions of that small but vocal minority? Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I hate giving such a small group such disproportionate power over the language we all use. I’d rather spend my efforts trying to change opinions on usage than trying to placate the peevers. But I have to admit that there’s no easy answer. If there were, there’d be no reason to call a term skunked in the first place.

8 Responses to Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

  1. So I started a much longer comment here before realizing that it would quickly grow into basically a free-standing blog post — I hope to publish a more complete response elsewhere soon.

    In its place, I want to point out a particular statement that gave me pause: “But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again”

    “It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong” begs the question of whether there is a “right” or “wrong’ use. (See what I did there?) It seemed that the whole point of this post was to show that the two interpretations of “beg the question” can (and should) coexist. Neither is right or wrong; they both just are.

    But these sticklers do point to a real problem, though I doubt it is prevalent enough to call for the wholesale banishment of a particular term: Sometimes, both interpretations of a particular phrase make sense in a given situation, which means the author’s true intention is obscured. In those instances, the phrase can’t be saved.

    “Literally” is a good example. I doubt I’m the only one who stops every time he sees “literally” and wonders whether the author meant literally literally or just used it as an intensifier. Context is clear in some (“I literally died.”) but not others (“I literally gagged.”)

    “Beg the question,” has, yeah, probably passed the point of confusion. But that’s actually touched on in the bit of Bryan Garner you quoted: “A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process.” I would argue that “begs the question” is no long in the middle part of the process.

    I do think you’ve hit on an important point about the effect of labeling a term skunked, though. Such labeling and avoidance does favor the growth of the newer, stickler-condemned interpretation of the term.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andy. I think I would say that both uses of beg the question are correct in different ways and for different audiences. Either way, it still feels to me like a way of ending a debate without really engaging in the debate. I get, though, that sometimes the debate seems intractable.

      And you’re right that there are some words and phrases that are genuinely ambiguous. As Mike Pope said on Twitter, nonplussed is a good example. It’s a pretty nebulous word, and context does little to clarify what the user intended. I don’t use it myself, not because I’m not sure how it’ll be received, but because I always have to stop and think about what it means.

      So I think there are times when avoidance is an advisable strategy. After all, we all want to be understood. But far too often, it seems to me that calling a word skunked is motivated more by jealousy than by real concerns about clarity. No one is confused if you say data is rather than data are, no one is confused if you split an infinitive (though they might be if you don’t), and no one is confused is you use beg the question to mean ‘raise the question’.

      I think it would be more productive to say that we should avoid a use because it’s unclear (if in fact it is) or that we should avoid it because some people will peeve about it. If it’s the latter, it’s important to know just how many people are really bothered. Is it just a few cranks who still think that splitting infinitives is a cardinal sin? Then I wouldn’t worry about it. Or is it a much larger group of people who are going to question my credibility if I keep using a word or phrase the wrong way? Then I should probably pay heed to their concerns.

  2. MarkB says:

    As someone who falls in the stickler class, I have a few comments. First, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to stop using ‘beg the question’ in the few cases it might come up. I have no interest in censoring others, but if no one else will understands what I mean to say, what’s the point? In this category I would also put ‘the exception that proves the rule.’ I can’t help but think that at least 9 out of 10 people using the expression don’t know what it means to communicate. As such, I consider both ‘skunked’ terms.

    Second, I don’t find the reference to splitting infinitives relevant. I can make a perfectly reasonable argument that there is no good reason why infinitives should not be split. When I do split an infinitive, I don’t do so out of ignorance of meaning, as in the ‘beg the question’ case. Rather, I move away from an arbitrary rule that never should have existed.

    • I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t avoid a term like beg the question, but as I said in the post, it’s not actually unclear in context. The older meaning was never widely known in the first place, so it’s no more unclear now than it was before. And the newer meaning is always clear. So you can avoid it if you like, but it’s not accurate to say that no one will understand it.

      As for your second point, I’m not sure what ignorance has to do with anything. The initial motivation for a change is irrelevant and has no bearing on how widely accepted or how well understood a particular usage is. When you say that 9 out of 10 people using the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” don’t know what it means to communicate, what you really mean is “at least 9 out of 10 people using the expression don’t use it the way I think it should be used.” Obviously it means something when they use it, and other people receive that meaning.

      I mean, you’re using “as such” in a way that some people would consider incorrect and ignorant (it’s not synonymous with therefore; it’s a prepositional phrase, and the pronoun such should have an antecedent), but I still understand what you mean. It doesn’t matter whether you know the rule about as such and are ignoring it or know the rule but choose not to follow it. So this isn’t really about clarity or even really about ignorance but about judging people for not using a term the way you want it to be used.

  3. Joanna Porter says:

    “But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.”
    Not necessarily. Sometimes they use it as both singular and plural in the same paper (sometimes even the same paragraph) and let the editor sort it out.

    • But my point that they can’t just stop writing about data still stands. And, ultimately, someone is going to have to pick a side. Pushing off the responsibility on the editor doesn’t change that.

  4. MarkB says:

    Our host seems to have fallen down that linguistic rabbit hole that Lewis Carroll would recognize immediately. When we get to the relativistic point that all that matters to meaning is what I THINK I mean, then we can no longer communicate. Yes, language evolves – that’s the kind of trope that is as true as it is trivial.

    In fact, when people say that ‘x is the exception that proves the rule,’ it is usually perfectly clear that they don’t know what the hell they are saying. There is no logical alternative being used, just a vague reference to a single case that is differenut from other cases. The problem isn’t one of evolving meaning. The problem is muddy thinking being expressed through parroting of a misunderstood cliche. And no amount of holier-than-thou linguistic patronizing will change that fact.

  5. I hate to tell you, but meaning is relative. Words do not have any sort of fixed or platonic meaning; they mean what people use them to mean. Or, to put it another way, words mean what we collectively think they mean—emphasis on “collectively”. The amazing thing is that we tend to arrive at a consensus, because we all have an interest in understanding and being understood. Saying that relativistic meaning leads to an inability to communicate is a slippery slope fallacy, and it shows that you don’t really understand how language changes, which may be why you brush it off as trivial. If meaning doesn’t change through shifts in what we collectively understand a word or phrase to mean, then just how do you think it changes?

    And whether or not you want to admit it, beg the question has a meaning that people use to communicate—it’s just not the one you favor. Same goes for the exception that proves the rule. It means that every rule has an exception, so this exception proves that there’s a rule. Again, you may not like it—and it stands in pretty clear contrast to the original meaning—but it’s ridiculous to assert that 90 percent of users don’t know what the hell they’re saying. Maybe they don’t know what you use it to mean, but they absolutely know what they use it to mean. And you know very well what they use it to mean too; you’d rather just pretend you don’t and get righteously indignant about it.

    And if the original meaning of the exception that proves the rule is more logical, then what are your premises? Why do you believe that they are necessarily true?

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