Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Have you begged the question lately? What kind of learning is best: online, remote, distance, or virtual?

Episode Summary

925. The existence of the manchineel tree does NOT beg the question of how many different ways a tree can actually hurt you. Online, Remote, Distance, and Virtual. What Kind of Learning Do You Like?

Episode Notes

925. The existence of the manchineel tree does NOT beg the question of how many different ways a tree can actually hurt you. But it does show that you can't always use taste to tell whether something is safe to eat. Plus, Online, Remote, Distance, and Virtual. What Kind of Learning Do You Like?

| Transcript:

| The "Online, Remote, Distance, and Virtual Learning" segment was written by Brenda Thomas, who has also worked as an online educator and instructional designer of online courses.

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Episode Transcription

The existence of the manchineel tree does NOT beg the question How many different ways can a tree actually hurt you? But it does show that you can't always use taste to tell whether something is safe to eat.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. This week, we'll try to figure out whether the new use of "begs the question" egregious according to the old meaning of egregious or egregious according to the new meaning of egregious, and then we'll talk about the difference between online and remote learning and why it matters.


By Mignon Fogarty

A follower who goes by Reef N Counter on Facebook asked "Grammar Girl, how can the definition of 'egregious' now be the complete opposite of its original meaning? How does that happen? Through gradual acceptance of misuse, such as 'bad' or 'wicked'?" 

“Egregious" has an interesting origin and an even more interesting history. It’s one of my favorite language stories.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), around 1550,

"egregious" meant "remarkable, in a good sense" — it was only a good thing — but just a few years later, by 1566, people were also using it to mean "remarkable, in a bad sense."

The OED speculates that the meaning started to switch because people started using the good sense of "egregious" ironically.

Imagine the 16th century equivalent of a hipster mocking a fellow noble:

Indeed, Lord John hath inspired the masses with his egregious plan to collect more taxes.

Some people actually think the illogical phrase "I could care less" began the same way. 

The Origin of 'Egregious'

Sometimes word origins surprise you, and the origin of "egregious" is one that surprised me.

It comes from a Latin word whose root means "flock," as in a flock of birds. The whole Latin word means "standing out from the flock." Originally, "egregious" meant to stand out from the flock in a good way; but now, thanks to our snarky ancestors, it means to stand out from the flock in a bad way.

So yes, Reef N Counter, the word changed its meaning through acceptance of what might be considered misuse, and it wasn’t even that gradual; it seemed to happen in just about 15 years.

Begs the Question

By Mignon Fogarty

When I do radio interviews, callers often ask me about the phrase “begs the question.” They often hear “begs the question” used to mean “raises the question,” and if they took a formal logic class in college or had a particularly diligent English teacher, they think the “raises the question” meaning is wrong. 

 But it’s much more complicated than that.

The Right Way to Use 'Begs the Question'

“Begs the question” is a term that originally comes from formal logic. It’s a translation of the Latin phrase “petitio principii,” which Merriam-Webster says is best thought of as meaning “assume the conclusion.” An argument that begs the question is often circular: the support given for an argument is actually just the argument stated in a different way.

For example, if I say, “Walking on the beach is good for your mental health because getting out in nature makes you feel better,” I’m begging the question in terms of formal logic because although I 100% believe that walking on the beach is good for your mental health, I haven’t made an argument to back up that belief. All I’ve done is say the same thing again in a different way: getting out in nature makes you feel better.

If I want to argue that walking on the beach is good for your mental health, I need to give some proof, such as studies have actually shown that staring at the ocean changes your brain waves in good ways. Now you may or may not believe that’s a good study, or you might say that staring at the beach is different from walking on the beach, but I’ve given a rationale for my assertion, as opposed to just saying that being out in nature makes you feel better — which most definitely isn’t any kind of proof. It’s just a restatement of the point. It begs the question.

Here’s another one that’s even more obvious. “Chocolate is delicious because it's yummy.” You have to ask, What's the support for your premise? If I don’t already accept that chocolate is delicious, I'm not going to accept that it's yummy just because you say it's delicious. They're the same thing. It’s circular reasoning. If you don’t make some kind of argument, you’re said to be begging the question. 

The Wrong Way to Use 'Begs the Question'

So now that we have that out of the way, we all know it’s rare for “begs the question” to be used in that traditional, “formal logic” way. 

When I was working on my book, “101 Troublesome Words” a few years ago, I tried to find examples of people using “begs the question” the traditionally correct way, and I went through thousands of search results without finding one. 

But “begs the question” is used the quote-unquote wrong way a lot. It took me about two seconds to find “begs the question” being used to introduce a clever or obvious question. For example, a headline on Yahoo reads:

A $250 melon begs the question: Is fruit the new caviar.

The writer is using “begs the question” to mean something like "makes me wonder."

Here's a headline from The Daily Beast:

‘The Mandalorian’ Begs the Question: Do We Need More ‘Star Wars’?

Again, the headline writer is using “begs the question” to mean something like “raises the question" or "leads us to ask."

Common Usage Versus Established Meaning

This newer, traditionally wrong usage is so common that Merriam-Webster lists it as a meaning without any kind of qualifying comment such as “nonstandard” or “slang.” In a Words at Play blog post, they say using “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” is ubiquitous and fully established. Garner’s Modern English Usage still highlights it as an error, but also concedes that it’s ubiquitous and not something an average reader will notice.

Words and phrases do change their meanings in English. We just talked about how “egregious” used to mean good, and now it means “bad.” When thousands of people use a word or phrase the “wrong” way, and almost nobody is using it the “right” way, it’s a clear sign that the meaning has changed.

Now if you’re a long-time listener, you might notice that my feelings have changed over the years. In 2008, I said it was wrong to use “begs the question” to mean “raises the question.” And in 2014, I still said it was wrong, but that it was a lost cause and not to get too worked up about it. Today, I agree with Merriam-Webster that in the great big world, “begs the question” legitimately means “raises the question” or “invites the question.” 

I could argue that it’s just as easy to say “A $250 melon RAISES the question: Is fruit the new caviar?” as it is to say “A $250 melon BEGS the question: Is fruit the new caviar?” But “begs” does have a more emphatic feel than “raises,” and it’s more crisp than something like “A $250 melon BEGS US TO ASK if fruit is the new caviar.

And I think that’s why people use it, that’s why it’s so popular. “Begs the question” serves a purpose. It’s useful.

Now, because I’m Grammar Girl, I still don’t use it that way myself, and I recently noticed it when I was reading a draft of a friend’s book. I didn’t say it was wrong, but I did suggest that she might want to change it. As an editor, I want to highlight it and give her the option because a few “linguistic stalwarts,” as Garner calls them, will still notice and think it’s an error.

So as I was thinking about the conclusion for this segment, I was talking about it with my husband over breakfast and mused, “Can I really just say, ‘So my advice is do whatever you want?’” And he actually tends to be more prescriptive than I am, and asked incredulously, “Has the language really changed in just 15 years?” And I said, “Yes! And then also … No. I think it’s really just that the experts have caught up with what was already happening with the language. It was very likely just as ubiquitous 15 years ago.” 

Ultimately, he reminded me that my argument is usually that you should do whatever your boss wants! And he’s right; that’s where I land. Because my goal is not to be on the leading edge, but to give you advice that’ll help you get ahead at work and at school. 

So if your boss or your teacher or a significant percentage of your readers would think it’s wrong to use “begs the question” to mean “raises the question,” or if you want to be perceived by absolutely everyone as the most precise writer possible, don’t do it. Otherwise, it’s probably fine. I feel about you the same way I feel about my book writing friend: I want you to understand the background and the current landscape and then make your own choice. So go! Be empowered with knowledge!

The Manchineel Tree

By Mignon Fogarty

And here’s a fun aside. I originally had an example in here that I ultimately decided didn’t qualify as begging the question, but while I was trying to work it out, I stumbled upon one of the most deadly trees in the world, and I just have to tell you about it!

The tropical manchineel tree is so poisonous that locals sometimes post warning signs on it to keep people from eating the berries or even touching the tree because its sap will burn your skin. (6) It grows in South Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America, and according to the Journal of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Christopher Columbus referred to the sweet tasting fruit as “manzanilla de la muerte” or the little apple of death, and the tree is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most toxic tree on earth. Even smoke from burning the wood is toxic. In short, this tree will mess you up! So now you know. Beware the  manchineel.

Online, Remote, Distance, and Virtual. What Kind of Learning Do You Like?

By Brenda Thomas

Are you listening to this podcast online, remotely, virtually, or at a distance? Those words are often used synonymously in this ever-changing and -expanding Digital Age. At the beginning of the the COVID-19 pandemic, internet technology started being used more than ever before for business, shopping, work, school, church, medical consultations, and a host of other activities that couldn’t take place in person in the same room. And a lot of people started debating what we should call delivering education through technology in these sometimes new, sometimes not new ways. We're going to review that discussion to figure out which words best describe various technology-based activities.

Online or Remote?
Had on-site education transitioned to online, remote, virtual or distance learning during the pandemic? Maybe your answer to that question is simply “yes” because you consider those words to all mean the same thing. Maybe you see nuanced differences in those words. Or maybe you have never even considered whether or not those words have similar or different meanings.

In response to the words “online” and “remote” being used synonymously to refer to all internet-based education, members of the National Council for Online Education wrote an article for "Inside Higher Ed" in 2022. The Council defines remote education as taking material and methods designed for in-classroom teaching and placing them in an out-of-classroom setting using the internet. In contrast, the Council defines online education as material and methods purposefully and originally designed for internet delivery.   

The Council said its reason for distinguishing remote from online is that high-quality online education existed before the pandemic. But the sheer speed with which in-person classrooms were moved to the internet at the beginning of the pandemic often led to, let's say, a "low-quality experience" for many teachers and students. Those bad experiences fostered an inaccurate stereotype that all online education is sub-par and inferior to an in-person environment. Therefore, the Council stressed that because all education using the internet is not the same in design and quality, then the words “online” and “remote” should not be used interchangeably. Their point is that online learning is better than remote learning because it's being taught the way it was meant to be taught, whereas remote learning is more like trying to force a round peg into a square hole. They also believe that online education can be just as effective as in-person learning when it's designed properly.

Distance or Correspondence?

Next, even though there is a distinction between online and remote education, both of them can be referred to as distance education in some cases. In 2021, the United States Department of Education enacted a policy that had been in the works before the pandemic to define what qualifies as distance education. That new policy states that distance education entails using technology to deliver courses with regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students. If there is no interaction between instructors and students or some interaction occurs, but it is initiated primarily by students, then online or remote courses don't qualify as distance education. Instead, they're correspondence courses, which is a term that harks to pre-internet days when students could take courses through the mail without interacting with an instructor in a different location. [And as an aside, this is Mignon, I tried to take a correspondence course by mail in college —German literature—and ended up having to withdraw. It was really hard to be that self-motivated as a 20-year-old!]


The last word we’ll think about is “virtual.” That word might be the most self-explanatory of all the words we’ve considered so far because many of us have probably attended or participated in a virtual meeting or event. In a virtual education environment, teachers and students aren't all together in the same physical place, but they are meeting together in real time using internet technology. Online, remote, or distance education can also be called virtual if instructors and students are together at the same time and in real time even though they're not all together in the same physical location.

What these definitions of online, remote, distance, and virtual education reveal is that more than one of those words, though there are distinctions, can be used to refer to the same activity. However, the nature, design, and purpose of various technology-mediated activities helps to determine which word or words best fit various situations. And let's hope for both our teachers and students that the years have given us time to move toward online learning, designed for the way it's taught, and away from the more troublesome remote learning.

That segment was written by freelance writer Brenda Thomas, who has also worked as an online educator and instructional designer of online courses.

Finally, I have a familect story from Bruce.

"Hi, Mignon.

My name is Bruce, and I have a familect story for you.

In the '70s, when we were a newly married couple, my wife and I had a man boarding with us. His name was Nigel.

In the evenings, when the three of us were watching TV or listening to music, my wife would often bring out a plate of cookies or donuts or whatever to snack on.

Sometimes there would be just one of those left on the plate.

After a while, Nigel would break it in half, eat that half, and leave the other half for someone else.

We would say, 'It's okay. We've had enough. Finish it off.' No way.

After a while, he'd break the half in half, eat his quarter, and leave a quarter for someone else.

This went on to ridiculous extents until there was barely a crumb left.

No matter how much we reassured him he could finish it off, he would not. Ever.

We guessed he'd been brought up to always leave some for others.

This happened so often that it entered into family legend, and to this day, 50 years later, throughout our extended family, if someone breaks the last of something in half and leaves a half, one of us will say, 'I see you're Nigeling that cookie.'

Or someone will say, 'There's no need to Nigel that. Go ahead, take it all.' That's how in our family, 'Nigel,' the boarder's name became 'Nigel' the verb.

That's my story. I love the podcast. Bye."

Thanks, Bruce. I loved that story.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. Call from a nice quiet place, and we might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, and thanks to the team. Our audio engineer Nathan Semes, our director of podcasts is Adam Cecil, and our marketing associate is Davina Tomlin. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, who loves to play tennis and pickle ball, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for