Slips: Spelling, Punctuation, etc.

Here is a rather random collection of pointers about punctuation, spelling, and meaning, jotted down while marking:

Argument. Not arguEment.

Begging the question. Outside philosophy, this is coming to mean posing the question. But, in philosophy, it should be used only to mean assuming that which is being argued for, i.e. arguing from a premise whose justification presupposes the conclusion. Question-begging reasoning is circular, e.g. arguing that God exists on the basis that the Pope says He does and that the Pope is made infallible by God. This is question-begging since the premise that the Pope is made infallible by God presupposes God's existence, which is just what the argument is supposed to give us reason to believe.

Semi-colons. These can be used as soft full-stops or hard commas. Used as soft full-stops, they separate sentences so closely related that a full-stop would be too abrupt, e.g. Many are uninterested in politics; few are disinterested, or It was the best of times; it was the worst of times (though Dickens, admittedly, uses a comma). They are also useful as hard commas when, for example, a phrase in a list itself uses commas, e.g. He argued the following: that the invasion of Iraq was morally unjustified; that it was illegal, as many have pointed out; and that it was imprudent.

Colons anticipate delivery of the goods invoked by what's gone before, as in She studied the three most famous empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, or She argued as follows: if determinism is true, then our actions were predictable before we were born; determinism is true; therefore, our actions are unfree (note also how semi-colons are used here).

Compare with, compare to. A useful convention recommends using compare to, rather than compare with, if you want to say or imply there are similarities. On this convention, you might be offended if I compare you TO a pig, but certainly shouldn't be if I compare you WITH one by saying, for instance, that you have two legs whereas pigs have four.

Disinterested, uninterested. Many are uninterested in politics; few are disinterested, since even if it bores them, it affects their interests.

Forward an argument? You forward emails, but you advance (or put forward) arguments or objections.

Independent. Not independAnt.

Momentarily, presently. Worry if the pilot announces that the plane will be airborne momentarily, but not if she says it will be airborne presently. Momentarily in British English means for a moment, not in a moment. And presently means in a moment, not currently.

Only. Place “only” only next to the word you want to qualify. Consider the differences among:

      • I eat only chocolate (as opposed to other foods).
      • I only eat chocolate (as opposed to sticking it up my nose).
      • Only I eat chocolate (as opposed to anyone else).
      • I eat chocolate only if I am bored. My being bored is a necessary condition of my eating chocolate. "Only if" introduces a necessary condition.
      • I only eat chocolate if I am bored. The natural reading would be the same as the preceding sentence, not that my being bored is a sufficient condition of only eating (as against doing something else with) chocolate. But to guarantee the more natural reading, put the only together with the if.

Inverted commas. One use of inverted commas is to report directly someone's words, e.g. Galileo said, "La Terra muove", as opposed to indirectly, e.g. Galileo said that the Earth moves. But inverted commas have a couple of other important uses:

      • Use and mention. In the philosophical senses of use and mention, one uses a word to speak of its referent but mentions it to speak of the word itself.

Usually the clearest way of mentioning a word is to put it in inverted commas, as in

1. “Trees” has five letters

which is coherent and true. Contrast:

2. Trees has five letters

which is senseless or false. Following this convention in philosophy helps avoid substantial errors and ambiguity, as in Fred refers to a physical object . Instead of inverted commas, some use italics (as I am doing here) or they preface the mentioned word or phrase with the word or the phrase. But inverted commas are usually best.

      • Scare quotes. Inverted commas can also indicate that you’re using an expression in an unusual sense or don’t want fully to endorse it, as when speaking of Mugabe as the “elected” President. Don't use scare quotes for true, false, right, and wrong (e.g. It's "wrong" to torture) unless you've good reason, which is clear from the context, for being suspicious of the corresponding notions.

Practise, Practice. In British (not American) English, the verb is "to practiSe", the noun "practiCe". For example: PractiSe this, because practiCe makes perfect. And: Those with meditation practices sometimes practise meditation.

Reject, refute. Some creationists think they've refuted the theory of evolution, but they haven't. They simply reject it. To reject p is to deny p. To refute p is to show p to be false, which can be done only if p really is false. You can reject p by saying "I reject p" but you can't refute it by saying "I refute p". Refutation takes work. Politicians and the like frequently misspeak when they say, "I utterly refute these allegations". They mean "reject" or "repudiate" or "deny".

Use, utilise. Why use utilise rather than use?