Sunday, May 02, 2004

Carrots, Sticks, and the Begging of Questions

Frequent commentator trumpit sent me the link to this LA Times article by Peter Garrison. In it, Garrison complains about how the idiom “to beg the question” has almost entirely lost its original meaning. These days, it is mostly used to mean, “to induce one to ask the question,” as in this typical example:
The Twins are up by five runs, and Lohse can't be sent back out there, and the real bullpen pitchers need a rest, but this still makes me nervous. Which begs the question, if you can't use him now, when can you use him? Which begs the question why is he in the major leagues? Which begs the question, what are Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire thinking? link
Originally, “begging the question” meant to use a circular argument, i.e., one whose conclusion is sneakily used as one of the premises. Garrison is not alone in this complaint. These guys here make the same one, and I’ve been bugged by the newer usage for years.

I even complained about it to my wife one day, but she was not sympathetic. She had several points. First of all, “beg the question” in its original sense is certainly not a semantically transparent phrase. What connection is there between “begging a question” and “using an argument’s conclusion as one of its premises”? Actually, there is one, which Evan Morris (aka The Word Detective) states concisely:
It means to bypass or avoid an essential question, but to proceed as if it had already been answered.
Even so, the semantic connection between begging and bypassing or avoiding is pretty tenuous, and not likely to be made by someone encountering this idiom for the first time.

Second: When someone does hear the phrase for the first time, they have every reason to treat it like any other English pharse, and create a meaning for it using their already-existing definitions for “beg” and “question.” Since you can’t actually beg a question to do something, guessing that it means to practically beg someone to ask some question is a pretty reasonable course to take.

Third: Of course, if they looked up the idiom, they’d find out what it meant, but as Geoff Pullum argues, you can’t look up everything . And why would you look up this phrase, anyway, once you’ve figured out a plausible meaning? It’s like when you get a bad grade because of some misunderstanding, and the teacher says, “If you didn’t understand, you should have asked me”—dammit, until I got this grade, I thought I understood perfectly! If someone says to you, “I eat bologna sandwiches,” are you going to look up the phrase “eat bologna sandwiches” to see if it’s an idiom?

Ultimately, I had to concede to my wife that criticizing someone for thinking that “beg the question” means “induce one to ask the question” is little more than saying, “Ha, ha! I’ve read books on logic and you haven’t! I know the code and you don’t!”

Returning to the LA Times article... Garrison generalizes his complaint, arguing that when terms for specific concepts lose their meaning, people are less likely to be aware of the concepts they denote. I have three things to say here. One: maybe, and maybe not. This claim is a version of what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, whose validity has not been established. Second: in this particular case, Garrison needn’t worry, because there’s another, more semantically transparent term for the concept--circular argumentation. And third, what would he say in a case where the goals of preserving a term’s original meaning and having a term for a useful concept were in opposition? This brings me to the other topic of this post: carrots and sticks.

My dad has brought to my attention the rampant misinterpretation of “carrot and stick.” Whenever you read the phrase in editorials or hear people use it, they mean “simultaneous use of rewards (carrot) and punishment (stick) to produce a desired behavior.” A typical example:
Jeb Bush is proposing a carrot-and-stick approach: reward school districts that have already tried and punish those that fail. link
But the phrase seems to have come from the image of dangling a carrot in front of a mule or donkey in order to get it to move forward in an attempt to get the carrot which is always just out of reach, as illustrated here and here. So the carrot is a reward (albeit an unreachable one), but the stick is just what keeps the reward out of reach, not an instrument of punishment. Evan Morris comments on the commonly used meaning for this phrase, too, here. In fact, it seems that even knowing of the origin of the phrase is not enough to keep the newer meaning at bay, as this cartoon shows.

Now I can definitely see Dad’s point, but what I haven’t had the heart to tell him is this: I think the phrase “carrot and stick” is more useful where it is now. First of all, you can’t look up everything. If you’re not familiar with the image of a carrot and stick used with a donkey, what are you going to think when you hear about motivating someone with a carrot and stick? I’d probably think of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and get the rest from context. Second, if everyone were to start using “carrot and stick” strictly in its original sense tomorrow, we would lose a convenient, short way of referring to a simultaneous use of rewards and punishment to produce a desired behavior, a concept that is useful in describing many situations. What would we gain in return? A convenient, short way to refer to one particular means of motivating a donkey or mule.

Which meaning would you rather have for "carrot and stick"?

No comments: