Probably the first idea that comes to mind on the subject of verbs is tense. In an earlier post (Time and Tense), I explained briefly the organization of the six tenses in modern English and laid them out one to the next across a timeline. In addition to tense, though, verbs take on another feature, called aspect, which is just as important to clear and accurate writing and speaking.

First, a word on the word aspect. Related in its origin to the word spy, the aspect of something is its appearance, its look, the way we see something portrayed in a given context. Imagine my presenting to you a sparkling and multifaceted diamond. As you first see it, with the light striking its surface in a particular way, would be one aspect, and if you stepped to the side and regarded the stunning object from another angle, with the light now striking it differently—perhaps a portion of one side in shadow and the other in direct light, this new appearance would be a different aspect. This seeing the same thing from different perspectives is what is meant by aspect.

Language, of course, works by depicting objects and events in words, and just as we can see physically with our eyes from different angles, so can we do the same thing with our mind’s eye. If, for example, I wanted to tell you about something that happened on my way to work this morning, I have a choice to make in the way I construct the tale for you. Do I say, It was the strangest thing: I walked down the sidewalk when I felt someone too close behind me, or It was the strangest thing: I was walking down the sidewalk when…, or It was the strangest thing: I did walk down the sidewalk when…. These three constructions of the verb walk represent the three aspects of a verb in English: simple, progressive, and emphatic.

We cast a verb in the simple aspect when we want the light of the reader’s attention directly on the action alone, when we want an isolated, snapshot view of what happened. Read that first example again (the introductory sentence sets the context), and you can hear how clunky the simple aspect would be here: It was the strangest thing: I walked down the sidewalk when…. Likewise would be the emphatic aspect: I did walk down the sidewalk when…. No one is doubting me, so why would I feel the need to emphatically state that I did in fact walk down the sidewalk?

But the second example, the progressive aspect, is the one we want: It was the strangest thing: I was walking down the sidewalk when I felt someone too close behind me. The context is such that you know I am about to tell you a story; I’ve set up that expectation with the introductory sentence. And because stories naturally stretch over time and develop as events unfold, the progressive aspect of the verb walk matches that story-telling characteristic, setting the stage for the next action: I felt someone too close behind me. And notice, too, how this main event, I felt, is presented in the simple aspect, the better to isolate, and so heighten, the dramatic moment of that one single action.

The aspect of a verb is not its tense, but when we can control those two features of a verb accurately, our language will come a step closer to representing the actuality of the events we are depicting in words. Much more is going on in the world than appears at first sight, and the skillful writer will show how each event is related to the next in a particular scene.


Questions, Direct and Indirect

I have noticed lately that the question mark is having a difficult time asserting itself. In an email to a client recently, a student wrote I have collected the information you requested. Would you be able to meet this Thursday afternoon. His second sentence here is directly asking a simple question, so shouldn’t it conclude with a question mark? It should.

English grammar recognizes in the main two kinds of questions, direct and indirect. If I have something to ask you and I ask you with the reasonable expectation that you will answer as directly as I have asked, then I finish my statement with a question mark: Who called you so late last night? What time was it? Why? These are called direct questions. The statement is the question itself, and to mark that, a direct question requires a question mark.

If I pose my question, though, as part of a larger declarative statement, I can ask it indirectly: I asked you who called so late last night. In this construction, the sense of posing a question is carried by the meaning of the main subject and predicate, I asked, and the specific question I am asking is cast into another clause introduced by an interrogative pronoun, who. Indirect questions do not conclude with a question mark and, importantly, do not place a comma after the main verb (here the verb asked).

We should note, too, that some indirect questions can be a bit coy at times. There is nothing demurring or overmodest in the indirect question I asked you who called so late last night, but there is if I change the main verb: I wonder who called so late last night. The verb wonder carries its interrogative meaning more lightly. The indirect grammatical construction remains the same, but the question is posed more suggestively, opening up a whole new world of covert possibilities in the conversation. Indirect questions, then, can be both expressed (I asked you who) or implied (I wonder who).

One close friend of the indirect question is what the Chicago Manual of Style calls the courtesy question. If my direct question has failed to elicit a straight answer from you about who called last night, I might be impatient to cast an indirect question or not yet ready to blast a real imperative at you. Between these two guns, though, I have the courtesy question, which is really, as the Chicago Manual says, a request in disguise: Would you tell me who called last night. I do not expect you to reply “Yes” or “No,” so the courtesy is not a direct question. Instead, I am telling you to answer without telling you to answer. Because courtesy questions do not expect an answer, they do not conclude with a question mark.

But, of course, if all else fails, I can always escalate the conversation to hazardous new heights with the straight-up imperative: Tell me who called you so late last night! Like the emotionally fraught assumptions they frequently carry, imperatives often end badly—but more often than not, badly with an exclamation mark.


Begging for More

In an earlier post (Begging for Change), I took up the question of begging the question, a phrase that has come to mean, as I explained there, something more than it did in the beginning. I received some comments asking me to give more examples of the original meaning, and I thought a few additional words here might shed some light on how thought takes shape in the way we use language.

We should begin by understanding that the phrase to beg the question is a technical name for a mistake in reasoning: to assume what we’re trying to prove. Those who think hard about thinking, the logicians, long ago assembled a collection of mistakes we often make in arguing a point. These mistakes in reasoning are called logical fallacies (fallacies meaning falsities), and each, as we would expect, has been named and defined and catalogued. The medieval scholastics took up the logical work of Aristotle, and translated his Greek into their Latin. Hence the fallacies often even now retain their Latin names; we still speak, for example, of an ad hominem argument (the phrase means concerning the person), in which we criticize the person arguing rather than take on their argument directly: What does he know, he’s illiterate.

I mention all this to say that the correct way to use the phrase begging the question (and by correct I mean only original), is to name the fallacy itself. Begging the question is the English translation of the Latin name for the fallacy, petitio principii. I referred in the earlier post to a prosecuting attorney urging jurors passionately to find this criminal guilty. A juror paying close attention might think to himself, “I see what’s going on here, more rhetoric than logic, for that’s exactly why I’m here: to consider the facts and determine whether the defendant is guilty. This lawyer is trying to get me to assume that the defendant is guilty; he is begging the question to weaken my judgment.” The technical designation, like all special terminology, is merely a shorthand for thinking, and helps us see what’s going on in an argument more quickly. We may expect a lawyer on behalf of his client to add the weight of a mistake in reasoning to the scale of his defense, but truth, even now, can outweigh appearance. To miss the logical mistake can cost us dearly, and with the name of the fallacy at hand, we have a chance to discern the error more surely.

But it is not only in the courtroom that the term applies. If I say, for example, Sam loves to take the train because he loves to travel, or I believe in God because the Bible is the word of God, or Laura is telling you the truth because she is a good person—all of these statements beg the question. They appear to be making an argument because we see the word because, but the conclusions only repeat the information in the because-clause—that is to say, they go back begging for more of the same idea and thereby prove nothing at all. The fallacy of begging the question (question meaning here the matter under discussion, not a statement expecting an answer) is closely related to another called arguing in a circle: if we’re just repeating the same thing over again in different words, round and round we go—as we, in fact, too often do.

Grammar, we can see, inevitably involves both logic and rhetoric; the three, in fact, are inseparable friends. Logic is the headiest of the three, though, and often demands much more attention. A really fine introduction to the subject of logic as it appears in our daily writing and conversation is D.Q. McInerny’s Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. Clear and concise, it introduces the subject of critical thinking in an accessible and inspiring way. I recommend it highly.


Begging for Change

It is not uncommon to hear someone say something like this: Well, if what you say is true, that only begs the question: Should we continue to allow houses to be built so close to the shoreline? The phrase begs the question has lately extended (some would say overreached) its established borders to now mean poses a question to be answered. This change in meaning points to one of the great tending forces in language: change.

There are those who observe that life in its most encompassing view seems to be characterized by opposing forces: dark and light, day and night, fixed and moving. The thought is very old, and it could help explain in part the creative tension that characterizes any kind of art we undertake seriously, including the art of language. Writers and speakers array themselves across a range of assumptions, with conservative at one end and liberal at the other, conservative here meaning the tendency to preserve a way of doing things, and liberal meaning the tendency to advance beyond those bounds. The conservative likes to dwell somewhere ever in sight of principles, whereas the liberal wants to move out to see what’s beyond the next hill.

Such tendencies in varying balance seem to be a part of every personality we know, including each our own, and when it comes to how we use language, we are left in great measure to find our place on the spectrum of conservative to liberal. We think sometimes that dictionaries and usage manuals will help us infallibly decide troubling points of grammar and phrase, forgetting, however, that these works, though indispensable, are themselves written by authors who assume a certain place and preference on the continuum.

So, for example, with the sentence at hand (Well, if what you say is true, that only begs the question: Should we continue to allow houses to be built so close to the shoreline?), a more preserving critic might decide that the new meaning of the phrase begs the question is a hill too far, that we should reserve the expression for its original meaning: to assume what you are trying to prove, which is a mistake in reasoning. When a prosecuting attorney says grandly to the jury in his final remarks, I urge you to find this criminal guilty, he himself is guilty of forgetting (apparently) that whether indeed the defendant is a criminal or not is the very reason the jury has been assembled; he is, in other words, assuming what the jurors must decide in their deliberations.

This mistake in reasoning has the technical Latin name of petitio principii, a request or begging (petitio) to stand as a premise or beginning (principii) of an argument what is really the conclusion to be determined. To commit this fallacy, as does the attorney, is not to pose a question—an interrogative sentence with a question mark—but to misorder a logical inquiry. So the new interpretation of the expression begs the question has arisen from misunderstanding the meaning of the word question: not question meaning asking for information, but question meaning inquiry, as when we say, This is a question of justice and fairness.

And therein would lie sufficient reason to those of more preserving bent to disallow the new use: confusion over the meaning of the word question. One can beg off a question, which means to ask to be excused from answering a question, but you cannot beg a question to pose a question. And this would be their position (and mine) because language is at best a rough and ready way of communicating the subtleties of meaning. Though arguments can be made on both sides, changes that stem from confusion can justifiably be thought suspect at first, and each such change should be brought before the court of one’s own thoughtful consideration of how modern English can and should work. By reading and writing more closely, each of us can come to rely more confidently on our own decisions, with reasons that sustain those choices. And those reasoned choices, after all, are what make up our very style.


Please look for more on this topic in Thursday’s post.