Throw Me to the Wolves – or Not

inconceivableA few months ago, I was casting around my brain for a title for a music-related post on my blog, and came up with “Begging the Musical Question” – a play on the well-known phrase begging the question.

But something about the way I wanted to use the phrase nagged at me, so I looked up what it actually meant. I had thought the begging in begging the question meant something along the lines of “posing.” Boy, was I wrong. Begging the question – according to my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable – is to “assume a proposition which, in reality, involves the conclusion” – in other words, to use circular logic. The entry in Brewer’s provides this example: if you say that parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel, you’ve begged the question.

Grammar Girl says you can also beg the question if you make an if-then statement whose conclusion is faulty – for example, if you say chocolate is healthy because cacao, from which chocolate is made, is a plant.

However, she goes on to say that the phrase is being misused so often these days that at least one dictionary is including the misuse as a definition. Still, she advises us to say raising the question if that’s what we mean – so that’s what I did in my post.

Of course, begging the question is hardly the only phrase that’s ever been used incorrectly. Another is throw (something) to the wolves. I’ve seen it used lately in relation to authors standing fearlessly before their critics. But that’s not what it actually means. Brewer’s defines it this way: “to sacrifice someone (a companion, colleague, subordinate), usually to divert criticism or opposition from the ‘thrower’; to make someone the scapegoat.” Think of hunters fleeing from a pack of hungry wolves – they might toss their latest kill (or their least favorite comrade) behind them in order to escape with their lives. These days, we may be more likely to use the phrase throw someone under the bus – although according to urbandictionary.com, that has an added malicious edge to it, as it implies that the person or thing being sacrificed doesn’t deserve to be set up.

So how can you avoid using a common phrase the wrong way?

The most obvious method is to look it up. If you have a copy of Brewer’s, or even a regular dictionary, you can often find a phrase by looking up one or another of the key words in that phrase. Brewer’s has throw to the wolves listed under Wolf.

If you don’t have a dictionary handy, you can run the phrase through your search engine and see what you get. Put quotes around the phrase you want to use and add the word “definition” or “usage” or “origin,” and your results should be in the ballpark. I suspect I used “begging the question” and “definition” when I was researching the phrase for my blog post.

If you prefer the personal touch, you could call or stop by your local library and ask a librarian to look it up for you.

Alternately, you can avoid using such phrases in your writing altogether. Sometimes they skate dangerously close to cliché territory anyway. And if the choice is between using a hackneyed phrase incorrectly or rewording the sentence, why, using the phrase would be almost inconceivable.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

13 thoughts on “Throw Me to the Wolves – or Not”

  1. The one I see misused the most is “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.” Oh, and thumbs up on The Princess Bride reference 🙂

  2. Along the same line is using the phrase, but getting it wrong. For example, my ex-wife would say “no punt intended” instead of “no pun intended.” (Don’t tell her I’m telling about this. She can be mean.) I see these kind of mistakes in indie books all the time. Ones in a while (see what I did there? 🙂 ) I’ll double check and find out I had understood the phrase incorrectly. I hate when that happens.

    1. I see that fairly frequently, too, Al. “For all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes” is another. I saw an article going around Facebook that had a bunch of these mistakes. Some of them were unintentionally hilarious.

  3. I’ve been having a stressful day and you made me so happy. I knew what “begging the question” meant. 🙂
    I like “bolt upright.” I’ve seen “bold uptight.” Ouch.
    The phrase “a crime in itself” is another that I like. I just used it recently and now I’m rethinking it.

  4. Lynne, excellent reminder to check our sources and make sure we’re using a phrase correctly. I was on tenderhooks the whole time. Irregardless, you’ve spotlighted some good resources to keep on hand.

  5. I posted The Cliché a few months ago, and touched on quite a few of those old sayings that you think you know, and which originated with something completely different. It’s good to be reminded that we are better steering clear of the old clichéd terms. We are writers, after all, we can be original.

    Excellent post, Lynne.

  6. Great advice, Lynne. I think the problem with misusage is that people think they’ve got it right, and it doesn’t even occur to them to look it up. That’s one reason beta readers can be helpful, because they offer different perspective, experience. Like Frank Mundo, I hate when people say, “could care less.” I saw it in a piece I was critiquing for writers group, but the author had no idea the saying was wrong. Would not have even occurred to her to check it.

    However, sometimes I do get a twinge in the gut when reading something and say, hmm, I should go check that and find out I was using it wrong (see how cool our brains our sometimes–there’s tons of stuff stored in there that we didn’t know about). I’m always thankful for those times, as opposed to the times when my gut fails to twinge for me.

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