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The word "irony" is often used incorrectly. To explain the proper usage, I went to the website called I came away more confused than ever about how to describe it.

That is irony, I believe.

On this fishy Is It Ironic site, people submit statements to find out whether they qualify as irony, and others vote on whether it's irony or not. A fair number of the queries received 50% yes and 50% no. Definitive answers aren't provided. So, forget about that.

Irony is the opposite of what you'd expect to happen. Sometimes, it introduces humor. A 300-pound offensive lineman named "Tiny" is ironic.

A person who vociferously advocates against eating meat is caught enjoying a Big Mac. That's ironic.

Suppose you iron a shirt, and it still has lots of wrinkles. Your roommate says, "Wonderful job."

That's irony about ironing.

"The Gift of The Magi" by O Henry is one big irony. The wife sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband's watch. Meanwhile, the husband sells his watch to buy combs for his wife's hair.

What's not irony? Usually, weird things that happen are called irony when they really aren't. The late comedian George Carlin once described it this way: "If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence."


One reader asked about the phrase "begs the question."

I have now read the explanations from numerous word experts, and I vow never to use phrase again. If possible, I will try not to associate with people who make "question-begging arguments," as one grammar person called them.

In The Accidents of Style, Charles Harrington Elster says that to beg the question is to assume an argument is true even though it hasn't been proved. So, I'm nearly certain that it has rarely been used correctly when I've seen it. More often, people mean to say that a certain topic raises questions about what should come next.

Elster provides a clear example of proper usage. He says the statement "Reasonable people are people who reason intelligently" begs the question "What is intelligent reasoning?"

Paul Brians, in Common Errors in English Usage, provides another statement that would beg a question. "This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless." The sentence begs the question because it "improperly takes for granted" certain facts that have not been shown to be true.

The man in charge of style guide for The New York Times, Philip B. Corbett, tries to clarify, too.

He says that when something begs the question, it uses a circular argument. Corbett, in seeking to explain usage, could find only two examples in The Times archives where it was used correctly. (Yet another reason for me to never use the phrase.)

It was used correctly by Gina Kolata, health and science reporter at The Times. (Yes, I love that her name comes close to rhyming with "pina colada.") Kolata had reviewed a book titled Good Calories, Bad Calories. The author, Gary Taubes, didn't like that Kolata doubted the key theme of his book. So, Kolata responds: "Gary Taubes says the reason people fail on low-carbohydrate diets is that they have not overcome their addiction to carbohydrates. But that begs the question, and Taubes provides no scientific evidence to back up that claim."

I am so glad Kolata used that correctly.

I found a few examples of incorrect usage.

• "Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the Yale Daily News that the demonstration begs the question of how students should stage protests."

• "Rebuilding the Ridge" is a rallying cry on signs around [Paradise, Calif.], evoking the beauty and peril of rebuilding on a wind-swept jut of land poking out of the Sierra Nevada and begging the question: Will the resurgent community be safer this time?"

• And, in what was no doubt a hard-hitting restaurant review, a writer comments on the corn dogs.

"The snack improves with a dip in 'Betty' sauce, based on a French ravigote, and also begs the question: Who's Betty?"

(For me, this raised the question: "What is ravigote?" It's a spinach/vinegar/herb sauce.)

In each example, the variations on "begs the question" should instead be "raises the question." So why do people get it wrong? I suspect it's that it sounds a little fancier or sophisticated to say "begs the question." But the phrase seems to be minefield. Stay away.


This is my turn to use the "no one talks like that" argument. And I will add the argument that when it comes to words, shorter is usually better.

Avoid utilizing "utilize." Use "use."

You're at the gym with a friend.

"I forgot my comb. Can I utilize yours?"

No, you won't hear that.

Your brother's bike has a flat tire.

He says, "My bike is messed up. Can I utilize yours?"

No, he won't say that.


"Ahold" is in the dictionary, but it's an informal, colloquial use of "hold."

This is the informal use:

I tried to get ahold of Floyd on the phone.

In a formal format, you'd use:

I tried to get hold of Floyd on the phone.

Sources include The New York Times, The Washington Post, Common Errors in English Usage, The Accidents of Style. Reach Bernadette at

[email protected]

Style on 12/02/2019

Print Headline: 'Begging' the question is not safe

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