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Globe and Mail public editor Sylvia SteadThe Globe and Mail

The headline above was on my column on grammatical mistakes that appeared in Saturday's Focus section.

It was penned by a very clever editor, Victor Dwyer: a wordsmith, writer and, if I may say, grammar nerd with a great sense of humour.

Not surprisingly, many Globe readers were in on the joke.

One reader from Winnipeg wrote: "If the Globe WERE Perfect ...?" Then, just four minutes later, "Duh! Got it ... now."

One woman wrote: "I had to laugh when I saw 'If the Globe was perfect,' and wondered if it were a test! Of course it should be 'If the Globe were perfect.' … I'm assuming someone else writes your headlines, otherwise you would have caught this instantly!"

Here's another long-time subscriber: "I read your article with a smile as I reflected on the title 'If The Globe was perfect, we'd never beg the question.' Upon further reflection, I and maybe several others may have thought that you were 'pulling our leg' with the intended misuse of the word in the title … as per your paragraph entitled 'Verb tenses.' "

And perhaps ironically, in a column about grammatical errors, an editor double-checking Victor's headline before we went to press also had sent him an e-mail wondering about his use of the indicative mood where the subjunctive was clearly called for. "Sometimes," Victor later told me, "it's not easy getting grammar mistakes into The Globe!"

Victor also managed to slide another of his grammatical pet peeves into the headline: "begging the question."

"During a public talk at the Banff Centre last summer, I delivered an entire tirade about the misuse of this phrase," he has since told me, and then elaborated a bit further:

"My main complaint with using 'beg the question' to mean 'introduce the question' is not so much any particular misuse per se, bothersome as those are.

"It instead has to do with the fact that, through people's repeated misuse of the phrase, it is in fact coming to mean 'introduce the question' or 'raise the question' in the public consciousness, which in turn means that the original meaning of the phrase (a phrase, by the way, long beloved by enterprising reporters) is being shunted aside, destined for the dustbin of linguistic history. 'To beg the question' has always meant, to quote Theodore Bernstein, one-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times and a man who railed against the erosion of good grammar as far back as the 1930s, 'to base a conclusion on a premise that needs proof as much as the conclusion does … to assume as true the very point that is under discussion.'

"In that capacity," Victor continued, "to 'beg the question' has a rich and honourable history as a phrase that succinctly identifies hogwash as it exits the mouths of the powerful, and there are few phrases in the English language that perform that claptrap-identifying function with such brevity and eloquence.

"A couple of examples, and my apologies if I have inadvertently borrowed them from any fellow grammarian preachers in my long travels through Pedantry Land:

"When, say, a multimillionaire preacher vows, 'I am a trustworthy TV evangelist; just ask this member of my flock,' and someone asks the evangelist, 'How do I know I can trust this member of your flock?' and the evangelist replies, 'Because I told you you can, and I am trustworthy,' a question has been begged.

"Or when a politician says, 'The citizens support our going to war,' and a reporter asks, 'How do you know that?' and the politician replies, 'Because part of being a citizen is to support your country's military,' a question has been begged.

"Instead of saying to these truth-twisters, 'Wait a second: You just begged the question,' journalists could, of course, say, 'Wait a second: Your conclusion is based on a premise that says substantially the same thing as your conclusion.' Or we could say, 'Your conclusion rests on an assertion that needs proving as much as your conclusion does.' But that's a lot of words, and none of them come close to the poetry of 'Prime Minister, you're begging the question.'

"But there you go. One more case of what we grammatical pedants insist is 'wrong grammar' – in this case, using 'beg the question' to mean 'raise the question' – is now correct grammar, or getting pretty close to being accepted as correct. And once any point of grammar is widely accepted as legitimate, it becomes, de facto, 'good grammar,' because the laws that govern grammar are common laws (much as we editors do our best to dispense rearguard judgments of civil law from on high).

"Sadly," Victor concluded, "in this instance, simultaneously being erased from the lexicon is an idiom that for centuries succinctly identified, and took to task, those who wrongly present as true the very thing we should be holding their feet to the fire to prove."

So that's Victor's pet peeve (actually, one of many, I suspect) and a great example of how bad, or wrong, grammar becomes commonplace through usage.

After Saturday's column, I am still going through the many e-mails from readers with their own bugbears, and I will publish another blog on this topic soon.

I am happy to include more, so please e-mail me at, or follow me on Twitter @SylviaStead.