Phrase Fads, Media Speak, and Other Dangers

Have you noticed that, suddenly, it seems as though everyone who wants to point out that an issue has been suggested is saying that it “begs the question”? It’s popping up everywhere—on TV (news and entertainment), in print, in conversation. It is an example of a “phrase fad,” the coming into popular use of a phrase, usually without anyone looking it up or knowing what it means.

If you haven’t guessed from that intro, “begs the question” does not mean, “raises the question.” It describes a logical fallacy, referring to arguments where the assumption on which an argument is based is actually what it being proven. In essence, something that begs the question is saying, “If we assume X is true, then I can prove it’s true.” In other words, you’re not really proving anything. If you look in the dictionary and read the full definition of “beg,” you’ll learn that, in addition to asking for something, “beg” means “dodge, evade, or avoid dealing with a point.” “Beg the question” is related to circular reasoning. One simply fails to deal with the real question. Almost no one will ever have a reason to use the phrase unless her or she is teaching philosophy or going into politics.

A useful tool for writers is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. This fascinating book would not only keep writers from using a phrase incorrectly (I’ve heard “handwriting in the hall” a couple of times now—ouch), but it might also tip you off to some spiffy phrase that would really punch up your writing (or help place a character in cultural context, for you fiction writers).

“Irregardless” became a fad for a while. It’s a non-word. However, since dictionaries reflect popular usage, it has begun to appear in dictionaries, though defined as “a humorous or substandard redundancy for “regardless.” Most of you may already know that, but the issue it brings up is that people pick up words and phrases they hear and don’t question whether the speaker knows what he or she is saying.

Another example from recent years is “penultimate.” It was used in one newscast by a reporter who thought it meant “higher than the top.” It actually means “next to last.” Within weeks, I was hearing “penultimate” on other channels, in lectures, and I was seeing it increasingly in print. Never use an unfamiliar word without checking it first, even if you’ve heard it used a dozen times.

Now if a reporter misuses a word during a live broadcast, it can sometimes be excused, as a dictionary is probably not close at hand, and one might be caught up in the emotion of the moment. The classic example of being overcome is, of course, the reporter crying, “Oh, the humanity” as the Hindenburg went up in flames. No one would chide him for using the wrong word under those circumstances. The ESPN reporter who, while watching sailors prepare yachts for a race, calmly noted that they were “efforting,” however, is not so easily forgiven.

Of course, moving from speaking to print removes all excuses for misused language. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen with the same frequency, just with less excuse. Before writing it down, look it up.

Of course, another problem with words one hears as opposed to words one sees in print is homophones—words that sound the same but are spelled differently. I actually find that, the larger the working vocabulary of a writer is, the more likely he or she is to use the wrong word, if that word is a homophone. In two years, I’ve only seen one case where a writer used the correct word to express someone reading something carefully and thoughtfully: pore. I’ve seen “pour” a dozen times. If you pour over a book, you’re just getting it wet.

I’m not sure what it means to peak your curiosity, unless it’s a high point in your research. Yet increasingly, that’s what I see, instead of “pique.”

There are a couple of things that can happen when you use the wrong spelling: if the reader doesn’t know the word, he or she may perpetuate the error; if the reader does know the word, your whole work might be dismissed.

Professional writers can’t afford to make these kinds of mistakes—though many do. Help save the language. Look up any word you’ve just heard for the first time (especially if you heard it on TV), any word you don’t usually use, and any word you haven’t looked up recently.

Oh—and to remember memento, think memory, not moment. That’s not actually a homophone, just a common misspelling caused by not really pronouncing memento clearly.

And don’t even get me started on checking your facts. I’m sure the writer who turned in the textbook chapter that identified Mikhail Baryshnikov as the former president of Russia thought it sounded right.

Just look it up. The Internet makes it easy. Bookmark a few good reference works, and double check everything. Don’t make it easy for an editor or reader to dismiss your work.

Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, history, geography, and language arts. She is also the author of the award-winning travel narrative Waltzing Australia


  1. Ben Bennetts says

    This article should be compulsory reading, not just for writers, but for anyone who has to communicate as part of their job. May I put in a mention of my own semantic bugbears –

    …”crescendo”, which, as any musician will tell you, means an increase in volume rather than a climax;

    …”same difference”, which is too often used to mean “same thing” or “no difference”;

    …”I could care less”, used (not just by Toby Ziegler) to mean “I couldn’t care less”, i.e. it would not be possible for me to care any less than I do.

    And don’t get me started on homophones.

  2. says

    Thanks, Ben. Always nice to find others who care about language.

    I don’t think people realize how important words are. The Greek word “logos” can be translated “word” or “reason,” because the Greeks understood that there is no thought without words. The more muddled language becomes, the more muddled thinking becomes.

    Plus, as Confucius wrote, “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant.”

    So keep on fighting those errors.