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English grammar

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Our senior editor in charge of style Martina Blaskovic is an experienced news editor with a passion for the language. She sends out regular notes to our staff reminding them of ways to improve our writing. Here is a note from this week:

Let's ban "beg the question"

The first is the phrase "beg the question" — which many an editor, including myself, is loath to use under virtually every circumstance. According to our style guide "it means to indulge in a form of faulty reasoning that assumes the truth of the very issue that is in dispute. It does not mean to ignore the main point, or to demand that the question be dealt with. (For this, we need invite, call for or raise the question.)"

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We have used this phrase numerous times before — a search of our archives show hundreds of results over the years — and, while I have not looked at them all, it appears we are almost always using it incorrectly and mean simply "raise the question" or "demand that the question be raised". Many of our readers know better and have taken us to task for it.

However, I would argue that many people do not understand the proper meaning of this term and that even if used properly, we would lose the comprehension of many in our audience. I suggest we simply stop using the term as it adds nothing to clarity and more often than not obfuscates our meaning. If we have a source who uses it in a quote correctly, for instance, I would still argue that we paraphrase so that the meaning is absolutely clear to all. Our overarching goal should always be that we convey meaning to all of our readers.

French words - let's get those accents and spellings correct!

Many of us, myself included, are not experts in French and my practice has generally been to double-check just about every French or foreign word I come across that I'm not 100 per cent certain of, and often even when I am. Our style guide tells us we should assume our readers to be intelligent and well-informed but unilingual. It goes on to say we expect them to know foreign or French words and phrases that have become a familiar part of Canadian English such as coup de grâce or tête-à-tête — however what has become a familiar part of the language, suitable for news stories, is open to debate. Maybe we can presume readers recognize café but do they know the meaning of calèche (which, by the way, had an incorrect accent in a recent obituary)?

When in doubt, or even when you think you aren't, let's make it a general practice to always check the style book and/or dictionary for foreign and French terms to make sure we get the spellings and the accents correct! We should also ask ourselves if those words are necessary to express ourselves in the best way, whether they are perhaps too pedantic or obscure. Our style book also tells us that "if an unfamiliar expression can't be avoided ... we provide an explanation."

I also let our writers know about a few complaints about misused homophones, those words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. Newspapers and other writers often confuse rein and reign or pour and pore.

Homophone errors can trip us up and this month we've had three caught by our readers. A story about the health concerns of  eating eggs said we should avoid eating the "yoke."

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An Olympics story talked about duel rather than dual winners. In another story Bambi was described as a faun, a mythical creature rather than the correct fawn.

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