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Sep 16 2009   2:15PM GMT

Begging the question



Posted by: Ivy Wigmore
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The following is published with the kind permission of author Wendalyn Nichols and the highly recommended  Copyediting.com.

Ask the Editor: Would you please comment on the correct use of the phrase “begs the question”?


Wendalyn Nichols
Would you please comment on the correct use of the phrase “begs the question”? I seem to recall from philosophy class in university that this expression has a very specific function in logic, but I’ve never quite understood it. My Random House Dictionary defines “beg the question” as “to assume the truth of the very point raised in a question.” From time to time I find that writers use it merely to advance a secondary query about a topic already introduced. Sensing this usage to be incorrect, I normally change the wording to “I also wonder…,” “We might also ask …,” “That raises the further question of …,” or something similar. How would you handle this construction? ~ Dick Jones, Associate Editor, MuscleMag International

Both of your observations are spot-on: that “to beg the question” has a specific meaning in logic, and that it is used most frequently as an incorrect substitute for “raise the question.”

Part of the trouble is that “beg the question” has become the only way we encounter this use of beg. You can also beg a point or beg a meaning, as the citations in The Oxford English Dictionary show. The definition in it is “To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question: to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.” (I love the first citation, which is from 1581: “Ffiij, I say this is still to begge the question.” Did you recognize the first word—fie?)

The other problem is that we don’t recognize that the meaning of question in this expression is not ‘something that you ask’ but rather ‘a point under discussion or dispute’. The Latin term for the error, which is a logical fallacy, is petitio principii—a laying of a claim to a principle. Petitio is the origin of petition, of course, which is also a request; that’s why beg was used to translate the expression. It would have helped if we’d used principle or premise instead of question; presumably this use of question was more familiar to people 400 years ago.

When you use “beg the question” in its original sense, you don’t follow it with of, as in “that begs the question of …” You simply say that someone is begging the question as a criticism of a statement. For example:

“She’s telling the truth because she’s
not a liar.”

“That’s begging the question.”

In other words, the statement is a fallacy because the speaker is taking for granted that the woman would never lie. The first assertion can only be true if the second assertion is presumed to be true—a type of circular reasoning. Here’s a perfect example of the classic use, from an April 19, 2009, blog post by Geoffrey Pullum on the Language Log blog, in which he takes apart an NPR listener’s reaction to his assertion that “none of us are” can be right:

Second, Sarah can’t just announce that it must be none of us is because “verbs should match their subjects”: that begs the question. The very question at issue here is which is the form that matches. [Emphasis in the original.]

Over time, “beg the question” has also come to be used to assert that a more general premise is weak or not universally recognized, so that a specific assertion based on that premise is suspect. In this use, we do find of being used to identify the question:

“Global warming is threatening polar
bears.”

“You’re begging the question of whether
global warming as a phenomenon exists.”

This is not the original use of the expression, but it is a common one that is well understood. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the Evanses, Garner, and others also note a further use, roughly equivalent to “dodge the issue”:

Begging the question of whether state government shouldn’t try to provide some relief to taxpayers in tough times, Fraser blamed the economy as one reason it won’t.

The meaning that is identical to “raise the question” is the most common use now—and it merits an entry in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response <the quarterback’s injury begs the question of who will start in his place>.”

Merriam’s example is typical in that sports writers overuse this expression. But we also hear “beg the question” when a speaker wants to say that a question isn’t just raised but is crying out to be answered. For example, Google News turns up “It begs the question of what he was doing there and why” from a crimescene investigator, and an example of a use of beg instead of requires or demands: “a point that begs further analysis.”

It’s this emphatic use in particular that argues for the worth of this meaning, but I still encourage editors to continue to correct it, emphatic or not. Raises works perfectly well most of the time, whereas the ubiquitous use of begs in this way is hyperbolic more often than not, and obfuscates the original meaning.
~ Wendalyn Nichols

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