“Begs the Question” and “Proves the Rule”

Intellect and vocabulary aren’t interchangeable, but the power of a good vocabulary goes far, and contrariwise, poor command of your native language bodes ill. With that in mind, indulge me in clarifying a couple of commonly misused expressions….

Beg the Question

Have you ever heard the phrase to “beg off” of something? It’s used as in “the man begged off his responsibilities for the day.” This comes from a less common, but quite current, definition of the word “beg”:

evade, sidestep — begged the real problems

The phrase “begs the question” follows this usage. To “beg” a question is to avoid it, not to invite it. “Beg for” is generally more appropriate in such cases, as in “beg for forgiveness.”

The more common meaning of “beg the question” has come into nearly ubiquitous usage, and so it has been taken on as a valid definition. English is a living language; in this case it has evolved through ignorance — but now you know.

The Exception Proves the Rule

You’ve heard this phrase. People love to use it when something goes wrong. Yet the commonly understood usage is on even shakier ground than “beg the question” — this one doesn’t even make sense; how could an exception, something going against the norm, possibly support the rule? Wouldn’t it make more sense for it to challenge the rule?

In fact that’s exactly what it does, and in turn what it means. To prove something is to test it, to check it for validity, accuracy, value — that is the main current definition.

If you’ve heard the phrase “proving ground,” that follows a similar vain; a proving ground is where you take something to test it, to prove it, to examine if it will work.

Likewise, “the exception proves the rule” means that this unusual circumstance undercuts the rule, renders it potentially unreliable — in other words, it tests the rule, because now there are doubts about it.

It’s pretty silly to use this phrase any other way. Every time you say “prove the rule” and mean that you think an unusual circumstance has in fact reinforced the generic case, the universe gives a professor of literature a heart attack.

Save a life — use your phrases right!