The Times Style Guide begs a question (or not)

The ‘Times Guide to English Style and Usage‘ (Times Books, London, 1999), setting out the stylistic and grammatical rules for that once majestically authoritative organ, comes a conspicuous cropper over that old chestnut, ‘beg the question‘, seeking to correct one howler only to commit another even worse (because much more common):

beg the question  do not confuse with ask the question. To beg a question is to evade it.

No, it isn’t.  It’s a much more sophisticated concept than that:

Beg: 6. To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.

1687 Settle Refl. Dryden 13 Here hee’s at his old way of Begging the meaning.  1680 Burnet Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question.  1788 Reid Aristotle’s Log. v. §3. 118 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.
[Oxford English Dictionary, Second ed.]


"Beg the question:  1. In strict use, the English equivalent of Latin petitio principii, used in logic to mean the ‘fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself’ (Fowler, 1926). Gowers (1965) cited as an example, capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase.  2.  In general use, the meaning is much more likely to be ‘to evade a difficulty’ or ‘to refrain from giving a straightforward answer’.  Examples: Let’s…beg the question of just who was in love with whom–H Jacobson, 1986 [etc]"  [Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1996]

Ah!  Perhaps that’s where the Times Style Guide got that idea that begging the question means evading it!  Bob Burchfield is of course infallible, but with his distinguished lexicographical background the great man was inclined to be too lenient with mistaken modern usage ("In general use").  In refraining from denouncing that wretched ‘evade’ usage as simply wrong, Burchfield was being descriptive, not prescriptive, as another, more hard-hearted successor to Fowler might have been.  But in any case, much the commonest misuse of ‘beg the question’ in current down-market parlance is surely neither in the sense of ‘ask the question‘ nor ‘evade the question‘, but almost invariably prompt the question’:  "When you say you didn’t pay for your peerage, it begs the question whether you expected it in return for your loan to the party even if you didn’t actually buy it."  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let’s agree that to beg the question is to ‘[found] a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself‘.  It’s neat, it’s elegant, it conveys a subtle concept in just four short syllables.  And it’s right.  Don’t let’s allow the Visigoths to hijack it to mean something entirely different for which an alternative, perfectly clear and concise, formulation is anyway available.  

While we’re not on the subject of ‘evasion’, we should also pronounce a curse on those who think that prevarication is something to do with procrastination or delay.  At least the Times Style Guide gets that one more or less right, although it doesn’t quite get the central concept of deviation:  to quote the OED again, to prevaricate is

To deviate from straightforwardness; to act or speak evasively; to quibble, shuffle, equivocate (from the Latin  prævaricari — to walk crookedly, hence, to deviate from a straight course, hence from the path of duty)

— which doesn’t beg any questions at all.  

Confession:  I suppose I had better admit that the December 2005 Times Style Guide online does make a rather feeble attempt to correct that entry in the 1999 book:

beg the question has a confusing variety of meanings, so is best avoided. Especially, do not confuse with "ask" or "raise" the question.

Cowards!  What use is a style guide that says how a phrase shouldn’t be used but is scared to say how it should?  And to crown that little evasion, the online Style Guide actually fouls up the book version’s entry on ‘prevaricate‘ by asserting, quite wrongly, that it means ‘to defer action, to be dilatory‘ — exactly what it doesn’t mean.  It’s that confusion with ‘procrastinate’ again.  The Times ain’t wot it used to be: Ichabod!

PS:  The Guardian online Style Guide is spot on with begging the question and perfectly acceptable on prevaricate.   Times editorial staff please copy. 


21 Responses

  1. Ronnie says:

    The example which I was taught was, I think. Chesterton’s, what grace should a Christian use before eating a baby, begging the question whether he should be eating the infant at all.

  2. John Miles says:

    Begging the question – what the toffs call Petitio Principii – means trying to prove something by covertly assuming the truth of what is in dispute, ie arguing in a, if I may quote, – Abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being and as such is murder. Murder is illegal. So abortion should be illegal.
    The conclusion of the argument is entailed in its premises.
    If one accepts that abortion is murder then it follows that abortion should  be illegal because murder is illegal.
    The arguer assumes that abortion should be illegal (the conclusion) by assuming – without proof – that it is murder.
    In this argument, the arguer should not be granted the assumption that abortion is murder, but should be made to prove his claim.
    Tricky stuff.
    But it happens every day.

  3. Baralbion says:

    You’re right of course. In another example, I’m shocked and amazed to see otherwise highly respected writers use "fulsome praise" to mean lots of praise rather than insincere, fawning praise. And the battle over "decimate" has no doubt been fought and lost. 
    But language moves on and nothing will stop it. "Beg the question" is so abstruse now that few people would ever have occasion to use it in its correct technical sense even if they understood it.
    Language is our most democratic institution. The trouble with democracy, as we know, is that it sometimes produces results we don’t like.

  4. Barablion- May be abstruse, but it turns up regularly enough: usually in debates in which the contestants are not prepared to get down into the tangles of their own fundamental assumptions.  These have been absorbed by osmosis and in most cases have avoided contact with the  enzymes present in the human critical faculties before being digested. 

  5. Baralbion says:

    Indeed – and a criminal advocate of long standing will no doubt know how to deal with such contestants. But language itself will continue to take on new meanings whether we like it or not.
    For a good article on the distinction between shibboleths and matters that may be of greater linguistic concern, see:,,1739802,00.html

  6. Baralbion says:

    You might like to take some comfort from the site dedicated to this topic at

    Brian writes:  Splendid!  Many thanks for this. 

  7. Michael Hornsby says:

    You would, I am sure, Brian, be disappointed if your spirited linguistic ukase had failed to flush an old Times-bird out of the undergrowth. So here I am, flapping into view and offering a tempting target for the waiting guns. Generally speaking, I would be more than happy to take the view that standards of English have slipped since I parted company with The Thunderer, and even happier to infer a causal link. But, in this instance, your strictures seem to me unduly harsh, uncharacteristically lacking in fairness and, on one point at least, demonstrably wrong. The inaccuracy first: the latest (2005) version of the Times Style Guide does not, as you assert, define prevaricate as "to defer action, to be dilatory". That is the Guide’s definition of procrastinate. The full entry is: "prevaricate must not be confused with procrastinate; the first means to speak or act evasively, the second to defer action, to be dilatory."  No problems there that I can see, other than perhaps an overly-narrow definition of prevaricate. En passant, it is worth noting that the tendency to confuse the two words is not at all illogical since one of the delaying tactics most often used by procrastinators is to prevaricate – for example, by quibbling or equivocating. It is at least possible that in time a generally accepted secondary meaning of prevaricate will be "to delay or play for time by quibbling, nitpicking, endlessly raising points of order etc". We have not quite reached that point yet, I think, and both Times and Guardian are right at this juncture not to encourage the confusion.
    Now to begging the question.  The 1999 Times Guide’s definition –  "to evade the question" – was certainly lacking in comprehensiveness, but not obviously wrong, in so far as it went. As you yourself note, Burchfield in the 1996 Third Edition of his revision of Fowler, allows that this definition – though he phrases it as "to evade a difficulty" – is in "general use", along with "to refrain from giving a straightforward answer [to a question]". Both of these, though the first more convincingly, can be properly defended as simply colloquial shorthand versions of the more scholarly "to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume the truth of a proposition without proof etc", derived from the Latin petitito principii. If you make an assertion based on a premise that has not been proved, you are in effect evading the question by assuming that it has already been satisfactorily answered and thereby sparing yourself the difficulty and effort of supplying and justifying the answer. In fact, of course, you are quite right to say that nowadays by far the more common use of to beg the question is in the sense of "to prompt or invite the question", which has nothing whatever to do with petitio principii, as far as I can see.  The Times English Dictionary, published in 2000, has the following entry as the 5th meaning of "to beg": "5 beg the question. 5a to evade the issue. 5b to assume the thing under examination as proved. 5c to suggest that a question needs to be asked: e.g. the firms’ success begs the question: why aren’t more companies doing the same?"  It then adds the footnote: "the use of beg the question to mean that a question needs to be asked is considered by some people to be incorrect". You will doubless consider that entry, with its studious refusal to declare any one of the three meanings to be definitively more correct than any of the others, to be excessively biased in favour of  "description" rather than "prescription", but it seems to me an irreproachably accurate summation of the current state of play – the operative word being "current", unavoidably so when discussing a living a language. It is difficult to object too strongly to 5c given that this definition does no more than take "to beg" in the sense in which it is now most commonly understood. By the same token, someone who insists today on using to beg the question only in sense 5b may win the plaudits of fellow scholars but will risk being misunderstood by 95 per cent of his fellow English-speakers. You charge the Times with cowardice in the 2005 version of its Guide for suggesting that to beg the question is now "best avoided" because it has acquired such "a confusing variety of meanings", and recommend instead the Guardian Style Book. You (deliberately?) fail to mention that the Guardian’s advice is exactly the same – " … best avoided since it is almost invariably misused". Both papers offer sound counsel, in my view. There are some phrases now so widely misused – that is to say, diverging so far from their original meaning –  that to insist on aboriginal correctness becomes absurd pedantry and hinders clarity and intelligibility, which ought to be the main aims of all bloggers, journalists and scribblers generally. A similar example is "honoured in the breach", that favourite hand-me-down cliché of lazy leader-writers, now universally used to describe a rule or law that is more often broken than observed. It derives from Hamlet’s famous description of his fellow Danes’ heavy drinking as "a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance", which means almost the exact opposite – i.e. a custom that one deserves more honour for breaking than observing. To use the phrase now in the sense Hamlet intended – however comforting to the user’s sense of his or her own superiority in matters linguistic – would merely create confusion. In such cases, which, I submit, now include to beg the question,  it is far better to find a new and fresh way of expressing the same thought that does not risk being misunderstood.
    Where "description" should end and "prescription" begin is, of course, a fascinating subject, but matter for another day. Suffice to say that even the magisterial Fowler accepted that there was a limit to prescription, to which no one would accuse him of being particularly adverse. Pedantry, he said in his inimitable style, may be defined "as the saying of things in language so learned or so demonstratively accurate as to imply a slur upon the generality, who are not capable or not desirous of such displays. The term is obviously a relative one; my pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education, and someone else’s ignorance. It is therefore not very profitable to dogmatize … [To do so] would establish not what pedantry is, but only the place in the scale occupied by the author". He adds that "pure English … is so relative a term that almost every man is potentially a purist and a sloven at once to persons looking at him from a lower and higher position in the scale than his own".
    Wise words, I feel.

    Brian replies:  Not Guilty, Michael.  As my original post made clear in its very first line, I was quoting the Times Guide published by Times Books in 1999, not the 2005 edition; and my quotation was accurate and complete.  (I have the book itself which you are welcome to check next time you’re here for a bite!)  Your case for asserting that ‘evade’ is a defensible definition of ‘beg’ in ‘beg the question’ seems to me — to put it as politely as possible — unconvincing.  I stand by my unfavourable comparison of the Times Style Guide with the Guardian’s, not because of the advice by both to avoid using ‘beg the question’ at all, but because the Times was too timid to attempt a definition at all (merely saying what it didn’t mean) whereas the Guardian did, and does, try its hand at a definition, rather successfully[1], before going on to advise avoidance of it.  Your case is not assisted by quoting ordinary dictionaries that don’t claim to do more than describe usage, not to judge it (other than the OED, which goes beyond ordinary dictionary practice by presenting extensive and informative quotations and by frequently distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable usage, apart from having unique authority).  Fowler sets out to be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive, but Burchfield’s edition is to my mind sometimes too lenient and relativist for a work generally consulted by those seeking guidance on what is correct. This undoubtedly reflects his background as an extremely distinguished dictionary editor, rightly concentrating on description rather than prescription (even in the OED whose massive Supplement he had edited).   I knew him quite well and contributed a fair number of examples to his edition of Fowler, and used to tease him — respectfully, I hope —  about his tolerance of usages that had not yet, to my mind, achieved respectability.  The problem was that as well as being a formidable and scholarly polymath, Dr Burchfield was an extremely kind and tolerant man;  intolerant denunciation was unfortunately not in his nature.  But notwithstanding this tendency to excessive lenience, Burchfield’s Fowler is a towering masterpiece, almost always reliably authoritative.

    As you may have had occasion to say occasionally in your former incarnation:  I stand by my story.

    [1] "it means assuming a
    proposition that, in reality, involves the conclusion; so for example it begs the question to say that parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel."

  8. Tim Weakley says:

    Michael Hornsby makes a good point.  However, the trouble with the "We know more or less what he means, so what’s the problem?’ permissive attitude to usage, as in the case of ‘beg the question’, is that it justifies the use of fine chisels as screwdrivers or for opening paint tins.  Ultimately the ability of our beautiful language to express subtle and precise ideas is degraded – particularly sad, because thought and the means of expressing it react so closely on one another.  Meanwhile, the schools continue to back away from their duty to teach the use of English and to draw children’s attention to the power of the language for fear of lowering the self-esteem of those who never hear English spoken, or spoken properly, in the home (or on the box) and are fast sinking into the ‘c u 2 nite’ culture.  The incapacity of some teachers may also have something to do with it.
    [Cries of ‘reactionary’, ‘elitist’, ‘Fascist’, etc]

    Brian, give me your opinion of ‘ad hominem’.  Surely an ad hominem argument is NOT a personal attack, although the phrase is generally used in this sense.  Rather, it is an argument intended to appeal to the opponent’s (and bystander’s) biases and preconceptions – an argument to the man, the venal, base man, rather than to reason, justice, or moral considerations.  What do you think?

    Brian writes:  Bravo!  You hit several nails on their respective heads with your well-aimed rubber mallet.   Those in the classroom who have shrunk from calling a spade a bloody shovel have much to answer for.  "It’s not exactly wrong, it’s just that some pompous old farts think it is, but I think I know what you mean so it’s all right…"  [Or, more likely, "it’s alright".]

    I’m afraid I have no views on ‘ad hominem’.  Comments, anyone?

  9. Baralbion says:

    Mike Hornsby offers a spirited and persuasive defence – as I would expect from a fellow Aularian. As background, he and others might like to see the exchange at:  For simplicity’s sake, I continue my contribution here. 
    The trouble with the kind of prescriptivism Tim Weakley wishes to promote is that it doesn’t work.  True, the eighteenth century grammarians had a good, if damaging, run for their money.  But you can no longer expect to change the way people speak by decree or even by a well-intentioned campaign.  People will use language in the way that suits them.  It’s theirs, after all.  If that means some of us (me included) are sometimes offended, too bad.  Expressions like "c u nite", in the right context, far from being symptomatic of a decline in standards show the same inventiveness that has enabled English to flourish in the past.  We should welcome such innovations, not sneer at them. The important point surely is "in the right context".  All language should be appropriate to the occasion.  I suspect that what many of us mean when we talk about incorrect language is inappropriate language: language not suitable for the occasion and consequently ineffective.  For it is in its degree of effectiveness that we should judge language use, not on whether it meets a set of arbitrary rules. 
    In the exchange referenced above, Brian alerts us to the need to be sensitive to our readers.  Certainly.  For that reason I avoid using split infinitives.  Not because I think they’re wrong but because it’s not worth going into the whole pointless argument yet again when challenged.  Nor would I, any more than Brian, use "like" for "as if".  And I would not use "hopefully" as a sentence adverb, "beg the question" other than in its technical sense, "disinterested" for "uninterested" (although this last has some historical justification) or "due to" for "owing to" (but I do struggle with this one).  But this is a matter of style, not "correctness".  What’s "correct" is a matter of opinion.  The linguist Max Weinreich memorably said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.  He might have added that "correctness" is determined by those with the biggest guns. 
    The only meaningful use of correctness as a linguistic concept is in reference to the utterances of foreign learners ("I want that you tell me"), young children ("That Daddy’s", "Daddy goed to work") or even, for those who can remember, Bluebottle ("You have deaded me").  In other words, the only incorrect forms are those which no adult native speaker of English would produce. 
    Ad hominem, incidentally, I take to refer to comments on people as individuals rather than on anything they may represent. 
    Finally, I use screwdrivers to open pots of paint. Who doesn’t?

    Brian adds:  Away with you relativists, pretending that there’s no such thing as correct English and that you use correct English purely to avoid arguments with prescriptionists like me!  You know in your hearts of hearts as well as I do that some usages are plain wrong, and will be instantly recognised as such by English speakers who take their language seriously.  A few — truly, not many — usages  are in transition between wrong and newly acceptable by dint of repetition and familiarity, and over these, and these only, acceptability may for a time be a matter of opinion. You guys remind me of those people educated in the 60s and 70s who can’t bring themselves to admit that Bach wrote better music than the Beatles.  See how that word ‘better’ makes you flinch?

    Incidentally, Burchfield makes a persuasive case for ‘hopefully’ in the sense of ‘with luck’, by analogy with ‘sadly’, ‘fortunately’, ‘regrettably’, etc., none of which offends us.  Which reminds me, what about the singular verb after ‘none’?  ‘None of the thousands of soldiers is wearing the kilt.’  (The kilt, BTW, like sheep, beef and women, apparently has no plural ending in ‘s’: ‘Thousands of soldiers are all wearing the kilt.’  Big kilt.)  And so it goes.  But I have no views on ‘ad hominem’; nor, so far as I can see, has Burchfield.  And if Burchfield doesn’t feel obliged to take a view on it, I don’t either.  Try the OED.

    Finally: I wouldn’t dream of opening a pot of paint, period.

  10. Baralbion says:

    Sorry, that last link didn’t seem to work.  The other comments are on Brian’s Miscellaneous, Other page: "A Dialogue About Plurals and Other Horrors". Not difficult to find.

    Brian writes:  I have added a link to the plurals post.  The other link seems fine:

  11. Brian says:

    Ad hominem: A phrase applied to an argument or appeal founded on the preferences or principles of a particular person rather than on abstract truth or logical cogency.
    1599 R. PARSONS Temp. Ward-Word vi. 79 This is an argument..which logicians call, ad hominem. 1633 W. AMES Fresh Suit I. x. 105 Some arguments, and answers are ad hominem, that is, they respect the thing in quæstion, not simply, but as it commeth from such a man. 1748 HARTLEY Observ. on Man I. iii. §2. 359 The Argument here alleged is only one ad hominem. 1787 BENTHAM Def. of Usury viii. 83 This argument ad hominem, as it may be called.  [OED Online edition]

    Which I think settles that.

  12. Baralbion says:

    I’ve been waiting for reinforcements, but the cavalry must be engaged elsewhere. [In Iraq, perhaps? — BLB]

    As it happens, I don’t much care for the Beatles, although I’m partial to certain other popular music of the period and I certainly listen to Bach with great pleasure.  The excellent John Carey in his book “What Good Are The Arts?” grapples with the definition of a work of art and concludes that it is anything that anyone at any time has said is a work of art.  Yes, I know, I know …………..   But his point is that none of us can climb inside the heads of anyone else and we simply don’t know that the experience of someone listening to popular music, say, is any inferior to the experience of us sensitive, cultured lot listening to Bach.  

    More generally, we cannot speak of correctness or good taste without saying who decides these things. Traditionally, the toffs.  But, quis custodiet, who shall regulate the regulators, and what is their legitimacy?  Those forms of language which are considered “correct” are no more than those which allow us to prosper in the polite society to which I imagine present correspondents are accustomed.   But this does not mean they are any more valid linguistically.  
    As I’ve said, it seems to me more helpful to think in terms of appropriateness and effectiveness than in terms of “correctness” (although what is appropriate and “correct” may coincide.)  For example, the Typepad website has: “Wanna see it all on a comparison chart?”   This strikes me as being entirely appropriate to the setting.   I wouldn’t expect: “Would you care to depress the relevant keys on your keyboard so that you can display on your screen the choices we offer?”   But, equally, I wouldn’t have expected – oh, I don’t know – let’s say Her Majesty’s Representative at Warsaw, to write “Hiya, Foreign Sec. Wanna hear about the latest goings-on in my neck of the woods?”   

    But we’ve come a long way from begging the question and I don’t want to abuse the hospitality of a very generous host. On the other hand, "none" and "the kilt" raise some interesting points ………………..

    Brian replies:  The view that you attribute to John Carey (that "a work of art … is anything that anyone at any time has said is a work of art") reminds me of the equally asinine definition in one of our recent race relations laws, taken directly from the Macpherson Report, of a ‘racist incident’ as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person [my emphasis]".  Unwillingness to assert that the experience of listening to Bach is superior to the experience of listening to the Beatles seems to me a kind of trahison des clercs.  (This truism is not affected in any way by the reality that some culturally impoverished people may find Bach ‘boring’ and the Beatles ‘brilliant’ — as indeed they were.)  There are certain elementary cultural values that we should not be frightened by swivel-eyed levellers and relativists to assert.  Squeamishness about asserting them contributes to the deadly erosion of teachers’ and parents’ aspirations for their pupils and offspring that has resulted in mass illiteracy (cultural as well as linguistic): which in turn has so disastrously coarsened our society and, worse, robbed several generations of Britons of access to the glories of our language and our culture which ought to have been their birthright.

    As to right and wrong in English usage, and the need (which you rightly describe) to recognise differences of acceptable usage as between different contexts — a novel, a letter, a text message, a speech, a conversation — please see my footnote to Peter Harvey’s most recent comment on an earlier post about plurals.  I think, or anyway hope, that we can settle amicably for that!

    Come on, cavalry: where have you got to?

  13. Peter Harvey says:


    As it happens, I have today read The Salmon of Doubt, the posthumous publication of what was left on Douglas Adams’s computer when he died.  He was a very great fan indeed of both Bach and the Beatles but, you will be pleased to know, his slight preference was for Bach. 

  14. Peter Harvey says:


    The cavalry presents its apologies; it has been suffering from overwork (writing about the English language, as a matter of fact) and flu, but is now setting out.

    You make the point that the prescriptive grammarians were wrong. No-one can deny that now but their influence continues with the ban on split infinitives (which I avoid whenever possible) and prepositions at the ends of sentences, which, in Spanish as in Latin, can only stand before a noun (they’re not called prepositions for nothing) but in English naturally follow the Germanic pattern of going to the end of the sentence. There is an idea, though, that Academies exist to fossilise the language; that is not the case with Spanish. It is true that some words are removed from the dictionary as they become archaic but the modern state of the language, with its changing forms, is recognised. Last year saw the publication of a Pan-Hispanic Usage Guide with contributions from all 22 national Academies (including the Philippines and the USA); the point is that an attempt is being made to maintain a unity in the language while not denying its development. Other perfectly respectable dictionaries have been published (not by the Royal Academy) showing modern slang and informal usage. The American tradition is more prescriptive than the British, as was seen in the row about Webster’s Third Dictionary (see Wikipedia article), which dared to include the word ain’t. The reason for
    this may be that a nation of immigrants urgently desired a linguistic standard to take hold of.

    Personally, I have never seen anything wrong with hopefully, and at the same time as my English teachers at school were being rude about it I was delighted to find that German has no inhibitions about using hoffentlich in precisely that sense.

    As for correctness, I have already made the same point as you: if a native speaker would never say it, then it can be said to be wrong in terms that a learner would understand; but if it is part of the natural usage of native speakers – and it does not detract from comprehension or subtlety of expression – then I see nothing wrong with it. Once, out of interest, I looked carefully at a piece of Jane Austen (I rather think it was the first chapter of Emma) and found that not a single page would have escaped my red pen if a student had presented that text to me. The qualification that I make above is of extreme importance though, and it brings us back to the origin of this discussion.

    None can be singular or plural depending on whether the idea behind it is: Not a single one has… or All of them weren’t…
    In this regard it is like any other group noun, though it is a group with zero members.

    Bach and the Beatles? De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Brian comments:  One more time:  the relative merits of Bach and the Beatles are not a matter of taste! 
    And in my book, ‘none’ is short for ‘not one’ and is followed by a verb in the singular. But maybe that’s just my book.

  15. Peter Harvey says:

    You can put what you like in your book but my book, which will be published next month I hope, says that none can be followed by a plural verb.

  16. Baralbion says:


    “None” is the negation of “some” or “any”. A problem arises because these can certainly take a plural verb whereas we might suppose that “none”, derived as it is from Old English “nan” (not one), can’t.

    Imagine a dialogue in which A asks B “What are the disadvantages in this approach?” B might reply, “There aren’t any, as far as I can see.” B might also (blamelessly, I suggest) say, “There are none, as far as I can see.” But if B said, “There is none, as far as I can see” you might think this an unlikely response. In that case you would have to allow a plural verb to follow “none”.

    If you argue that a plural verb after “none” is illogical, then you would presumably also argue against double negatives. These, however, have a pedigree in English. It’s often been a case of the more negatives, the greater the degree of negation. French, of course, for all its assumed logic, uses double negatives all the time. Language is not mathematics and there is seldom any risk of ambiguity in using more than one negative. If someone says “I ain’t got none”, nobody is going to think he means that he’s got some.

    There is a linked inconsistency with “no-one”. Although it takes a singular verb, we nevertheless say things like: “No-one knows, do they?” not “No-one knows, does he/she?” (Alternatively there is the Fats Waller variant, “One never knows, do one?”)

    Brian writes: Sorry to be a spoilsport, but I would happily say: “There is none,” or perhaps “There’s none,” and if I said: “No-one knows, do they?” it would be to avoid the he/she problem, not because I accept no-one governing a plural verb.

  17. Baralbion says:

    Well played, if I may say so. However, I suspect the use of “No-one knows, do they?” pre-dates our current gender sensibilities.

    I don’t mean to be dogmatic about “none” (no, really). It’s just that “There are none, as far as I can see” strikes me as being as acceptable as the alternative, at least as far as informal usage is concerned.

  18. Peter Harvey says:

    The use of ‘they’ with a plural reference has everything to do with common sense and convenience, and nothing (originally) to do with gender susceptibilities.

    ‘”If everybody minded their own business” said the Duchess’ in Alice in Wonderland.

    And from the OED under ‘they’:

    2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).
    See Jespersen Progress in Lang. §24.
    1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf+a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt they omyt one verse or twayne. 1535 Fisher Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues. 1749 Fielding Tom Jones viii. xi, Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it. 1759 Chesterfield Lett. IV. ccclv. 170 If a person is born of a+gloomy temper+they cannot help it. 1835 Whewell in Life (1881) 173 Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would. 1858 Bagehot Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206 Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety. 1866 Ruskin Crown Wild Olives §38 (1873) 44 Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing. 1874 [see themselves 5].

    and under ‘themselves’:

    5. In concord with a singular pronoun or n. denoting a person, in cases where the meaning implies more than one, as when the n. is qualified by a distributive, or refers to either sex: = himself or herself. Cf. they 2, them 2.
    a 1464 Rolls of Parlt. V. 513/2 Inheritements, of which any of the seid persones+was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other. c1489 Caxton Sonnes of Aymon i. 39 Eche of theym sholde+make theymselfe redy. 1533 More Apol. 55b, Neyther Tyndale there nor thys precher+hath by theyr maner of expounynge+wonne them self mych wurshyp. 1600 Shakes. Lucr. 125 Euery one to rest themselues [ed. 1594 himselfe] betake. 1654–66 Earl of Orrery Parthen. (1676) 147 All that happened, which every one assured themselves, would render him a large sharer in the general joy. 1874 G. W. Dasent Half a Life 3 Every one likes to keep it to themselves as long as they can.

    Note the quotation from Shakespeare. He can usually be relied on in cases such as this.

  19. Baralbion says:

    While we’re OED bashing, how about:

    “None of these however are known to us.” Oliver Goldsmith.

    Cited in “The Penguin Guide to Plain English” by Harry Blamires.

    Same source asks us to consider:

    “None of those applicants who sent in their forms last year are required to re-apply.”

    “Are” or “is”?

    Brian writes: “is”. None = Not one.

  20. Baralbion says:

    A balanced approach to be found here on a generally well-informed and comprehensive site:

  21. Georgia says:

    American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition
    'beg' definition:
     – beg the question: To presuppose the conclusion in one's argument.
    2. To equivocate.

    It seems that there are few instances in common parlance when one could use the phrase easily.  Perhaps it can only be used to describe an argument that someone has made.  For example after listeneing to my mother ranting on about things that she has read in the Daily Mail I might  say "she begged the question" when she has made a muddle of her arguments.

    Brian adds:  I think the main thing is to avoid using this phrase as if it was the same thing as "to prompt the question", or "to raise the question".  I have never heard or seen it used in the sense of "equivocate", which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means "‘To mean one thing and express another’; to prevaricate"; "To insinuate by equivocation;   to evade (an oath, a promise) by equivocation", where — a little more helpfully — equivocation is defined as "The use of words or expressions that are susceptible of a double signification, with a view to mislead; esp. the expression of a virtual falsehood in the form of a proposition which (in order to satisfy the speaker's conscience) is verbally true."   Not easily equated with begging the question, unless the begging (in its true technical sense) is done deliberately in order to mislead.   (Peter?)

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