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November 12th, 2008

Beg the question / [B]affling brackets / types of computer? computers?

by Barbara Wallraff

William Fenwick, of Northville, N.Y., writes: “I have seen and heard, even from respected journalists, what I think is a misuse of the phrase ‘begs the question,’ as if it means to invite a question. My understanding is that the phrase really means to avoid or ignore a question. For example, if I say to my friend Bob, ‘Why did you do that?’ and he replies, ‘Yes, why DID I do that?’ then he is begging the question. What do you think?”

Dear William: It’s worse than you think. The traditional meaning of “beg the question” is “to argue in a circle,” or, as the New Oxford American Dictionary explains it, “assuming something that ought to be proved first, as in the following sentence: ‘dogs should be locked up, otherwise attacks by wild dogs on children will continue to increase.’”

Since this has nothing to do with either begging or questions, the traditional meaning is hard to keep in mind. So it’s unsurprising if people press the phrase into service for assorted question-related matters. I think our choices are to use “beg the question” only in the traditional sense – which in practice means we’ll hardly use it at all – or to accept both the “invite” and “evade” meanings, which, by the way, the New Oxford American Dictionary does.

Kae Bauer, of Van Buren Township, Mich., writes: “My husband is reading a book on politics that uses a peculiar grammatical convention. He asked me what it meant (since I have an English degree), and I was stumped. The author begins certain paragraphs by putting the first letter of the first word in brackets. An example is ‘[H]istory indicates an inevitable slump in the blah blah blah.’ It’s not in quotation marks or italics, and it’s not every paragraph, only certain ones. Can you help? This is baffling!”

Dear Kae: Those paragraphs are “block quotations.” Look again and I’ll bet you’ll see that what precedes them is a version of “So-and-so said.”

It’s not unusual for quotes that go on for more than a line or two to be set off in separate paragraphs, so readers can tell where they end. And many authors – bless them – are fanatical about being exact with quotations, right down to the capitalization. So in your example, the author is probably quoting someone who wrote something like this: ‘As we’ve seen, history indicates an inevitable slump …’ Out of the original context, the initial phrase isn’t helpful. And the part beginning with the word “history” expresses a complete thought. But because the original author didn’t start the sentence there, your author put the capital letter “H” in brackets to show that it wasn’t precisely what was on the page from which he or she was quoting.

Bob Doutch, of Cambridge, Mass., writes: “When pluralizing an expression that includes ‘type of,’ as in ‘type of computer,’ it feels natural to me to say ‘types of computer’ rather than the redundant ‘types of computers.’ My colleague disagrees and says it should be the latter.”

Dear Bob: Most people find “types of (plural noun)” more natural than “types of (singular noun).” The exception is when the word that follows “types” – or “kinds” or “sorts” – is a mass noun or an abstraction, like “electricity” or “technology.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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