Is “That Begs the Question” the Exception That Proves the Rule?

dictionary image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/141757 by Chris Eyles http://www.sxc.hu/profile/mistereelsLanguage purists like to correct others’ minor mistakes. Their motive is to make themselves feel smarter by making you feel dumb. I know this because I used to be one of them. When I changed my metric from “smart” to “generous” this approach lost its appeal.

The real motive should be to make language mean more; to teach others how to use language more effectively

That Begs the Question

That’s one of the phrases language purists get up in arms about. The explanation of what it originally meant is so complicated that I have to look it up every time I’m curious.

People use it to mean “that raises the question.” Not only is that the most common usage and understanding, it makes sense. When an old meaning becomes so obscure that people can’t remember it but a new (yet still sensible) meaning becomes widespread, language should change.

There are cases, though, where this doesn’t apply. Sometimes a confusing or illogical usage becomes common.

The Exception That Proves the Rule

One of these is “the exception that proves the rule.” The word “prove” in this case does not mean “shows to be correct.” It’s the old, but still valid, meaning of “tests.” That is, “this is the exception that tests the rule.”

If something seems to violate a rule we believe, it makes sense to prove, or test, the rule with that exception. It does not make sense to prove the rule, or show it to be correct, with that exception.

When people point to an exception and say “Look; the exception that proves the rule” that’s wrong not because it’s not the way it’s always been used but because it’s the wrong meaning. It doesn’t follow the rules of logic.

When language changes make more sense I like them. When they cause language to become less sensible I fight them. Those who prefer an archaic meaning because it’s archaic should remember that “let” used to mean “hinder” but now it means “allow.” “Shambles” used to be a meat market. If that’s what your kid’s bedroom is, that’s your business. I suspect you’re using a more recent meaning of the word.

Move toward more meaningful language, speech, writing. Don’t fight the growth of that living thing, language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *