I Beg of You: Don't Beg the Question!

by tandemonimom

"Begs the question" does NOT mean what you think it means!

What Begging the Question Does NOT Mean

Begging the question does NOT mean "causes one to ask."

begging the questionThere is a growing movement - I can only assume it is part of a vast conspiracy to drive grammarians everywhere insane - to misuse and abuse the phrase "begs the question" in a way that has exactly nothing to do with its actual meaning.

It is easy to find instances of the widespread misuse of this term; just google the phrase "this begs the question" and you'll find multiple instances of it. On the first page of my results I found:

On a forum discussing the tragic death of a young race car driver, a respondent wrote: This begs the question should young kids really be racing?

In an article discussing the actions of a governmental body, the reporter wrote: This begs the question: What is going on in the minds of these officials who were appointed to serve us?

In both of these instances, and in every other instance I have heard and read with annoyingly increasing frequency, the phrase this begs the question is being used to mean this leads me to ask or this makes me wonder. This is so far from the actual meaning of the phrase that it makes me wonder where it got started.

That question I cannot answer, but I can tell you what the phrase actually does mean.

What Begging the Question Actually Means

Begging the question is a term for a specific type of logical fallacy.

Begging the question is a type of logical fallacy, very similar to circular reasoning. "Begging the question is what one does in an argument when one assumes what one claims to be proving." (Skeptic's Dictionary)

Begging the question implicitly or explicitly makes an assumption and then proceeds to make an argument based on the assumption, without bothering to prove it first. So behind the assumption, there is a question begging to be asked. For example:

Since all kindergarten teachers are playful, you must have a lot of fun being in Ms. Wizzle's kindergarten class!

This argument assumes that all kindergarten teachers are playful and goes on to make an argument based on that unproven premise. This argument (quite properly) begs the question: are all kindergarten teachers actually playful?

What Begging the Question Becomes

What's the future for question beggars?

All this raises (but does not beg) the question: Is this really important? Well, yes.

Aside from this misusage causing the ears of grammarians, debaters, and logicians everywhere to bleed profusely, this is a very specific term that is still in use with its original meaning. Language is not static, and it changes all the time, but stealing a word from a specific discipline and degrading it into slang renders it useless to those who need to use it in its original sense. It's a little more damaging to the language than using the word "groovy" as an exclamation.

It also raises (but does not beg) the question: Is there a hole in the English language that must be filled with this particular phrase? And the answer, of course, is NO. There are many ways to indicate that something has raised a question, or made one wonder, or moved one to scratch one's head about something.

Have You Wrongly Begged the Question?

Begging the Question

More Fun with Grammar!

Yes, I said fun with grammar. Deal with it.
Series commas, a.k.a. serial commas, are a hot topic with the cool grammar geek crowd. They're also called Oxford commas or Harvard commas; now doesn't that sound erudite?
He and I ... her and me ... How about a simple grammatical rule for when to say "I" or "me"?

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Updated: 08/02/2012, tandemonimom
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I Beg to Know: Do You Beg the Question?

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vbright on 07/03/2011

Interesting. I'd like to see it used in a proper sentence.

Treasures By Brenda on 07/01/2011

I don't think (hope not) that I've ever begged the question.

Dianne on 06/27/2011

I'm showing this to my son the grammarian. He will enjoy it and maybe teach a grammar lesson on Facebook. ;-)

Susan52 on 06/27/2011

I haven't heard that phrase much at all and definitely don't use it, so I'm innocent!

Simon on 06/27/2011

I really enjoyed reading your articles - thanks for this very nice and detailed explanation!

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