Words Matter, So Here's 'Word Matters'

Do you sigh when you hear someone begin a sentence with "so?"

Have you given up correcting people who say they're going to "lay down for a while?"

Are you curious about why NPR refers to the militant fighters in Iraq and Syria as the "self-proclaimed Islamic State?"

Starting today, occasional conversations we're planning to have on Weekend Edition Saturday will take up such topics. The segment is called "Word Matters."

As we hope you know, NPR takes language seriously.

That's why we think hard about words and phrases. Take the way NPR usually refers to those fighters in Iraq and Syria. On first reference, our practice is to say "so-called" or "self-described" or "self-proclaimed" or "known as" before we say "Islamic State." Our thinking is that those words let listeners and users know that the organization is not a "state" in the traditional sense of that word. It is a group that has named itself the Islamic State. There's a difference.

We also aim to be clear and accurate. In September, the Obama administration was referring to U.S. military actions in Iraq and Syria as a "campaign against extremism." We consulted our dictionaries (yes, we use them) and came to a very simple conclusion: The right word to use is "war."

Using the wrong words, of course, can get in the way of our stories. Emailers have been pleading for years that we stop saying "begs the question" when we really mean "raises the question."

Aristotle is credited with identifying the logical flaw many people make when they beg a question. Essentially, they accept a premise and then repeat it as if that's support for their conclusion. Here's a statement that does that: "The Beatles are everyone's favorite band because they're so popular." Being "everyone's favorite band" and being "so popular" are basically the same thing. The speaker isn't addressing the key issue — why are the Beatles so popular? He's just speaking in circles and not offering any logic.

When some people hear us "beg the question" the wrong way, the rest of a story is ruined.

The truth is, though, that we do and will make mistakes. You will hear us stumble on the air. We will say "reticent" when we mean "reluctant." We will drop the ball and let cliches slip into our reports.

It's also true that we do adapt as the English language shifts. We heard from many users when we sprinkled the word "garnish" into reports about the seizure of people's wages and bank accounts. The correct word is garnishee, emailers said. Well, we concluded that the critics were trying to enforce a rule that no longer applies. Our dictionaries told us that garnish was now correct.

Maybe some day we'll give in on "begs the question" too. But not yet.

Our goal during Word Matters segments is to pull back the curtain (cliche alert!) on the discussions held in NPR's newsroom. We're also hoping the conversations encourage even more members of the NPR audience to get in touch with us. There's an email for that: Don't worry if you mistakenly type, the message will still get through — we know what it's like to hit the wrong key.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. From May 2009 to May 2014, he was co-host of The Two-Way.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit



Time now for words.


SIMON: I know that's our sports theme, but for some of you, words certainly are a sport. We get lots of emails, tweets and Facebook comments from listeners every week. And week in and week out, the leading source of complaints is often language - when we use a word that's wrong or use one incorrectly. Or as somebody wrote me a few years ago, how can I trust anything you say about gun control or foreign policy when you don't know how to use a gerund? Aren't you loving that letter? It's a gerund joke, by the way, for those of you who collect them. We're joined now by Mark Memmott. He is NPR's Standards and Practices editor, the man who ultimately thinks through and sets guidelines for words and usage on the air. So direct your emails to him. We call this segment "Word Matters," or what did we do wrong this week, Mark? Thanks very much for being with us.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Thank you. Good to start the day with a gerund joke.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah, any day that starts with a gerund joke is looking up. So let's hear some examples (laughter), right? I set you up.

MEMMOTT: You violated one of our rules - well, semi-rule. We get a lot of complaints that drives listeners nuts when they hear NPR hosting correspondents begin sentences with the word so. The grammarians will say that's wrong. It's a conjunction. You're not supposed to do that. Now, it is conversational. It is a way to sort of get your thoughts together as you're moving from one question or one segment to another, so it's understandable why people do it, but we do it so much. We do it over and over and over. I just have to think there may be some so drinking games out there during our broadcast. I'm not endorsing that by the way.

SIMON: Yeah, another phrase that begs the question - and because when people use it, that's not what they mean at all.

MEMMOTT: You just violated another one. We think begs the question means raises the question, but it doesn't. The phrase goes all the way back, at least, to Aristotle, I won't try to say it in Greek. He gets credit for putting the name to a habit many of us have that makes no logical sense. When someone begs a question, he's giving you something of an answer, but not one that really says anything. He's speaking in circles. Let's say you and I are talking about rock 'n roll bands. I say The Beatles were most people's favorite group. You say yeah, man, The Beatles were the most popular band because everybody liked them. You've accepted my premise and then just repeated it. You didn't offer any real support or logical reasons for your conclusion.

SIMON: But what about the argument that, at this point, that phrase - begs the question - has been so widely misused, the meaning of it has been changed?

MEMMOTT: Well, there is an argument to be made that when things get into common usage we ought to start using them. I think - we think - we should try to stick to Aristotle's original meaning. And remember, there's an easy fix. Just say raises the question when that's what you mean.

SIMON: 'Tis the season to raise questions, once again, about the name of Washington's professional football team. For many years, I have refused to say their names - I won't contradict someone who uses it, but - and occasionally I've read it, one figures, in a story, but...

MEMMOTT: We have not absolutely banned use of that team's name, but along with being clear and accurate without being boring, we try not to offend people, so we consider carefully when, if ever, to use offensive language. And we warn listeners if we have to use such words, which is what I'm about to do. What is considered offensive changes over time. There's been increasing attention in recent years to that D.C. team's name. Our policy is that if we're reporting about the debate over the name, as you and I are doing right now, we will say Redskins because that's an important part of the story. Otherwise, it's Washington or the team or the club. There are other words we can use.

SIMON: Mark, thanks you very much for being with us.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome. Glad to be here.

SIMON: Mark Memmott - NPR Standards and Practices editor. You can reach Mark at Fill up his inbox.


WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) And that's why I think it's a good time to learn some grammar. Now, did I stammer? Work on that grammar. You should know when it's less or it's fewer, like people who were never raised in a sewer. I hate these word crimes, like I could care less. That means you do care.

SIMON: So not to beg the question, you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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