A Few Word’s About Language

January 6, 2010


When exactly did everybody decide that “begging the question” meant something completely different from what it actually does mean? Because believe me, everybody has decided: I’ve heard it in conversation, read it in newspapers and magazines, even recoiled from it in one of Seth Meyers’s “Weekend Update” monologues on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I mean, his team is supposed to be full of Ivy Leaguers, right? But SNL’s head writer still misused the term.

“Begging the question” (petitio principii to reason nerds) is the logical fallacy of pronouncing something proven only because you say it is: “That guy’s mad right now.” “How do you know?” “Because he’s really angry.” It can sound OK if you don’t get more than an instant to think about it, so it works for Fox News blowhards all the time, but to the “reality-based community,” no proof has actually been proffered. My parents paid good dough to send me to college, where I learned the above facts in my Logic 101 class, and that was in humble Mississippi, hoss. What “begging the question” does not mean is, “causing the question to arise,” like this: “Dick Cheney is all over President Obama as weak on national security. Which begs the question, since when is criticizing a wartime president no longer unpatriotic?” Nothing in the term “begs” us to ask the question. That’s not what it means at all. (In real life, I beg to differ with former Vice and current Azkaban Dementor Cheney, but that’s for another topic.)

Now, the funny thing about all this is that, as a few more years pass and more and more people continue this “mistake,” it will eventually become accepted usage, and I’ll just have to lump it as thoroughly as anybody who still bemoans the loss of “thee” and “thou.” Our language changes, as all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level. It’s becoming harder for the zeitgeist to distinguish the error when someone says, “I could care less,” even though they mean the exact opposite, because everybody agrees on the mistaken meaning. “Like” is a generational delineator, meant to communicate intimacy – I don’t really know any more about what I’m describing than you do, that’s why we’re BFFs – but I’ll bet not even one kid realizes that fifty years ago it was a beatnik term meant to communicate societal derision. In the Nineties, “cool” re-emerged from that same coffeehouse usage, whether meant ironically or not (my guess is the latter), but it’s been replaced by “awesome,” which is easier to say than what’s really meant: “awe-inspiring.” Or maybe that’s not what the Olive Garden waiter means as you produce a valid credit card.

“Irregardless.” It sticks around, doesn’t it? It sounds better than “regardless”; there’s a certain erudition implied (maybe it’s a cousin to “irrational”), even if many can recognize the attempt as faux. But fewer and fewer of us can, every single day. And why shouldn’t that word exist? What are you gonna do with a language in which “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing?

But what’s really starting to take over, the one that frosts me the very most, is the unnecessary – and sense-muddling – plural apostrophe. It’s an instance in which lazy orthography has actually made our already murky language even murkier, but don’t worry, I’m not going to rant any more, just point it out. Because the first battles are already lost, dudes and dudettes: I have some facts coming up that will sear your hair and melt your faces.

The apostrophe I accuse, the hated punctuation that I would hire a hundred hitmen to eradicate, is this:

1950’s hit singles.

Does that mean hit singles of the entire decade of the Fifties? Or what it has looked like to me ever since I learned about the possessive form in the third grade: those only of the year 1950? Well, these days your guess is as good as mine, because creeping into current usage is that indeterminate apostrophe. Just from looking at that phrase, without diving into the context and trying to pry out the precise meaning, you simply can’t tell. Once upon a time you could: the whole decade’s chart-toppers would have been rendered, and instantly comprehended, as

1950s hit singles.

But now you can’t. And it’s not just numbers, either:

ICBM’s Removed From Disneyland.

How many Cold War missiles were there in the theme park before we got them out? I say only one, because that’s what the frickin headline says: the apostrophe stands for the letter “i”! But – ladies, please avert your eyes – the unfocused apostrophe has even been found, incredibly, in the New York Times! They’ve written about CD’s, DVD’s, G.I.’s, A.T.M.’s – the only way I could take it was by doing a good stint of yoga every morning before I unfolded the blasted thing. (Nintendo Sold More Wii’s Today!) I actually complained to the Times’s wonderful city columnist, Clyde Haberman, when he made the mistake one day of writing about punctuation errors in commercial signage. In a very gracious email exchange, I learned that this apostrophe was indeed enshrined in the Times’s stylebook. The example cited was (I’m not making this up) “MIND YOUR P’S AND Q’S” in an ALL-CAPS HEADLINE. Setting aside how seldom such a usage would be needed – all-caps Times heads only appear on the lead stories above the fold on the front page, and letting this tail wag the dog made the entire rest of the paper look like its fly was unzipped – what’s wrong with “MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs”? Later, Mr. Haberman told me the old copy chief who supported this policy had retired, that the offending apostrophes – which the columnist himself admitted he’d always frowned upon, though he did pose a conundrum: how do you print the plural of “ho”? – were now being reconsidered. The Times’s hated rival, the Wall Street Journal, gets along fine without any of them, and I understand every word in Rupert Murdoch’s entire godforsaken paper, even the primitive cave etchings of Karl Rove.

I’m bothered whenever inanimate objects come to own media banks. I worry that some day they might go all Terminator on me.

I wail because precise meaning is being surrendered in favor of sloppy mistakes which we’ve just decided to let go, and that road leads us to IDIOCRACY, which over time is becoming less funny and more scary. I’m not trying to be the old grammarian coot who’s always chasing the imprecise whippersnappers off his lawn. It really doesn’t matter to the pageant of history whether you say “irregardless” or misuse “begs the question,” because your intended meaning is still coming through loud and clear; in cubicle-speak, “at the end of the day” we’re “on the same page.” Not so with this goddam apostrophe: you’re making it impossible for anybody to figure out exactly how to pluralize, or indicate a possessive, ever again. And you just sat there and let it happen, you copy-editing wimps! Where’s the pedantry when we frickin need it?

Now, if my wife Linda reads this piece, I’ll have driven her nuts about twenty times, by including a second “s” after a possessive. The Times’s stylebook. Seth Meyers’s flub on SNL. GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, a new book I really hope you’ll buy, and there it even is, right there on the frickin cover! I say it doesn’t bother me because I’m indicating pronunciation: “Jesus’s sermons” would be pronounced JEE-ZUS-IZ SERMONS, not JEE-ZUS SERMONS. Linda says, yeah, but it’s still not needed! And she’s absolutely correct. In print, the final “s” is utterly unnecessary, a fifth wheel, a male teat, unhelpful in even the slightest way. But come on: airbody does it. Including, God help me, me!



Since I name-checked the New York Times’s Clyde Haberman, I thought it would be courteous to let him see the piece. With his permission, here is Mr. Haberman’s response:

Many thanks for sending me this. I deeply appreciate the generous shout-out –- along with your grammatical points, of course. Indeed the offending apostrophe in 1950s, DVDs and the rest is now gone from Times usage.

But the part of me that shares your fastidiousness about grammar could not help noticing this sentence in your piece:

Our language changes, like all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level.

Unless you were being deliberately ironic, a strong possibility suggested by the words that follow the semicolon, that “like” should be “as.”

I’m sure there must still be some instances that call for use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural form. I stand by my example of “ho’s.”  I think “hos” would stop the reader short. The purpose of punctuation is to enhance comprehension. But as best as I can tell the apostrophe as a pluralizing agent is, for all intents and purposes, gone in NY Times usage.

And my response:

Hilarious! Nope, I confess it, that piece of “deliberate irony” was non-deliberate. But the best thing about a blog is that I can go in, Orwell-style, fix the bad word, and pretend it never happened!

Oops…did I just say that out loud?

9/23/11: The opening of the big new movie MONEYBALL (it’s great, even for non-baseball fans) is driving copyeditors crazy, because the major-league team featured is the Oakland A’s. Yes, they wear that silly apostrophe on their uniforms. (It stands for “Athletics,” which is how they billed themselves way back when they were in Kansas City.) So even the Wall Street Journal, which consistently gets this issue right — the Times continues to slip back into incomprehension — was challenged by Joe Morgenstern’s movie review this morning, which includes these phrases: “Billy finds salvation from the A’s relative poverty…” and “…whenever the A’s general manager is in camera range…” Rather than adding an even sillier apostrophe at the end and coming up with “A’s’,” the Journal printed these sentences exactly as I have just shown. The apostrophe shifts around in your mind and becomes possessive, or something like that. Of course it’s imprecise. Too bad: nobody cares.

10/6/13: The Times continues to blow it, big time:


12/30/13: It’s something I hoped I’d never see: Clyde Haberman’s final piece for the New York Times, at least as a contractual employee, after 37 years with the paper. Maybe there’ll be some one-shots in the future; my fingers are crossed. For a taste of his beautiful work, read my favorite of his many “NYC” columns. Ave atque vale, Sir Clyde.

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