Sunday, January 23, 2005

Begging, and questions

The expression "to beg the question" does not refer to a follow-up question that is required given an unsatisfactory reply to the original question. It is a debating term in which the question is the issue under discussion, and you beg it by taking for granted the very thing you are trying to prove, as part of your proof.

That said, no dictionary on Earth appears capable of a decent example of such a construction, and it could be argued that the "follow-up question" usage has the advantage of describing something that actually needs a description.

For example, suggests

Shopping now for a dress to wear to the ceremony is really begging the question - she hasn't been invited yet.

Collins English Dictionary merely defines the phrase as

(a) to evade the issue. (b) to assume the thing under examination as proved.

Those are neat definitions, but when would you actually assume the thing under examination as proved?

Another example might be the case where someone objects to same-sex relationships, then when asked why, says because it's wrong. There, the question is the wrongness or otherwise of such relationships. To use their wrongness as an argument is begging the question, because it's a circular argument that is only true so long as it's already true.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

It's its "its"

It never ceases to amaze me how many supposedly educated, intelligent professionals who presumably once attended some sort of school and are able to hold down a well-paid job and navigate the average room without bumping into the furniture cannot manage to spell the word "its". It is, after all, a word of one syllable. It's spelled exactly as it's spoken. It's clearly related to "his", which nobody but the criminally insane would write as "hi's".

The problem is that in English, as in other languages, we are able to run some common word combinations together for convienience, brevity and fun. In French, for example, "ce est" ("it is") is usually abbreviated to "c'est", which, conveniently for an everyday word, isn't easily confused with anything else. In English, however, shortening "it is" or "it has", leads disastrously to "it's", resulting in a tragic situation in which two different things sound the same.

The situation worsens once we consider possessives. "The cat's whiskers", for example, indicates the whiskers belonging to or otherwise closely associated with the cat. By a convenient convention, if we are referring to many cats we shorten "cats's home" to "cats' home".

Now consider the impact of a sentence such as "It's a great car but its handling's let down by its suspension" on the average magazine journalist or IT manager with a limited capacity for philosophical introspection. He or she will have to keep in mind both the it is = it's construction and the my/his/hers/ours/whose one. At the same time. Uh oh.

Friday, January 07, 2005

What exactly is the thing?

An odd stutter seems to come over people when they refer to The Thing. Not Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four, with whom they seem to have few if any grammatical problems, especially around Clobberin' Time, but the one in sentences beginning "The thing is".

Not, you might think, the most complex construction. You have a thing. It either is something, or it isn't. If it happens to be a banana, for example, then the thing is a banana. Nothing complicated about that.

So why do we keep hearing "the thing is is the train was late"? Clearly the train being late is identified as the thing. That is what the thing is. One thing is the other. So what in the name of all that's holy is is the second "is" doing there? When people try to write this down, they struggle to rationalise it, resulting in "the thing is, is" and even "the thing-is is". This is because they are twats.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

My Husband and I

Would you say "Come with I"? No you wouldn't. Would you say "Me am going out"? Not unless you are Tarzan. It doesn't take any grammatical analysis - it just sounds obviously wrong, and it is.

The problems seem to start when the sentence is just slightly more complicated. If instead of "I am going" and "Come with me", it happens to be My husband and I are going" and "Come with Beyoncé and me", suddenly all hell breaks loose. You remember hearing the Queen saying "My husband and I" and sounding a bit posh, so you force yourself to say "and I" in all situations because you think that must be the correct thing - perhaps there is a rule about "and" among posh people, or something, after all the Queen says it and it's her English. Or like David Baddiel you decide that you are fed up with all that pretentious twaddle and resolve to say "and me" in all situations and damn the grammarians. Or perhaps you steer a middle course, saying one or the other but not really being sure which is right, or why.

But actually there is no special rule about "and", and Her Majesty does use the word "me". You just need to use the same word that you would have used without the "blah blah and".

Dot, Dot, Dot...

An ellipsis stands for some text that has been omitted, or at the end of a sentence it suggests something trailing off into silence or the reader's imagination. It is written as three dots.

Not two.

Not four.

Not bloody eighteen.

Now how hard was that?

Monday, January 03, 2005

Regarding Regards

Can we get one thing straight. Regard is attention, sometimes esteem or admiration (you may have, for example, a low regard for the Phantom Nitpicker), but it is based on the idea of regarding something, of looking at it and giving it some thought: therefore it makes sense to say "with regard to usage", "regarding usage", or if you must, "as regards usage".

Regards, on the other hand, are greetings. For example, "Give my regards to Lady Davenport", or, famously, to Broadway.

Therefore anyone who says something like "with regards to this morning's meeting" is an idiot. And probably in middle management.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Let's Nitpick

It is tragic that in these days of increasing written communication, so many people seem to struggle to express simple concepts in plain English (and doubtless also plain French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and any other written form that allows plainness). Either they show themselves up as losers (or as they would no doubt put it themselves, "loosers"), or - and this is the painful part - standards sink, and those of us who care for the language of Milton are banished, condemned to the margins of written society, cursed forever to wander the dark blogs, forums and newsgroups of the Net as pariahs, languishing as a fury doth in Hell.

Well alright, Milton was a bit weird, but you know what I mean.

The Nitpickers' Charter

  1. Only native or otherwise confident English speakers should be targetted for nitpicking.
  2. Errors of understanding should be targetted above simple typographical errors. For example, someone who repeatedly writes "with regards to" probably needs to have it pointed out that regards are things one gives to Broadway. If he or she simply misskeyed it as "wtih regard to", The Phantom is less concerned.
  3. The Phantom corrects English usage. In the words of Michael Biehn's character Reese in The Terminator, "That's what it does. That's all it does! It can't be bargained with! It can't be reasoned with! It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!" So, in many ways, The Phantom is like The Terminator. Both have names beginning with "The". Neither engage in debate. The Phantom stops before you are dead, though.
  4. Priority should be given to comedy effect.