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March 10, 2005

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» Begging the Question from LogBlog
John asks if logicians should give in in the face of rising acceptance of the use of "begging the question" for "raising the question." I agree with the commenters: we should not. [Read More]

» Begging the Question from Political Animal
BEGGING THE QUESTION....Whenever I use the phrase "begging the question" on this blog I always get at least a couple of commenters taking me to task for misusing it. I've always meant to reply to their complaints but have somehow... [Read More]

» Like Soldiers in the Winter's Night With a Vow to from Lawyers, Guns and Money
...the misuse of "begging the question" 1)confuses the meaning of an important concept that is most elegantly expressed using the phrase, and 2)as many of the luminaries commenting on Dr. Holbo's post have noted, "raising the question" is a better al... [Read More]

» I Heart Grammar from After School Snack
OK, so it's time for me to come out of the closet: I'm a grammar nazi. A BAD one. The kind of person who uses correct punctuation and syntax even when I'm instant messaging. The kind of person who shops at Target as much for their correct usage of "f... [Read More]

Comments

Jeremy Osner

Humpf. I don't think "begs the question" makes any sense grammatically when used to mean "demands that we ask". It has all the hallmarks of cliche -- a person who writes such a sentence is just putting words together without thinking about their meaning. So I'm with you. Possibly relevant trivia, I seem to remember reading that "begs the question" is a shortening of "beggars the question".

Jacob T. Levy

Don't give in, John. This is a usage fight that's worth fighting. I use "invites" or "raises" the question for the other. But there's too much genuine question-begging in the world for us not to keep the phrase that describes it.

bitchphd

Yes, what they mean is "raises" the question. It's sort of like when people say that such-and-such "belies" something else, when they mean "reveals" (the exact opposite of what "belies" actually means). Grrrrr.....

Sean

I'm just going to agree with everyone else. "Raises the question" is perfectly good for what is meant, so there's no reason to be permissivist about "begs the question." And the latter is useful in its own right, no reason to abandon it.

(I once heard an astrophysics seminar with the title "Does the Milky Way galaxy have a bar?" introduced as "A talk whose subject is begged by the question, 'Where should we go for a drink in the Milky Way?'" Wouldn't want to give up the capability for lines like that.)

Love the Nutwork, by the way. Love it.

Dr Pretorius

First they came for 'Ontology'
and I did not speak out
because I was an Analytic Philosopher
Then they came for 'Normative'
and I did not speak out
because I was not interested in Ethics.
Then they came for 'Metaphysics'
and I did not speak out
because I was not a metaphysician.
Then they came for 'begging the question'
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Is that the sort of thing you're going for?

Adam Kotsko

John Holbo is absolutely and completely right. Although the imagery of a set of ideas getting down on their knees and saying, "Please, we beg of you -- you know what question you should ask here!" is maybe a little funny.

ogged

Yup, what Jacob said. "Begs the question" describes something that other phrases don't, so we need to keep it. I was surprised to see it misused in an academic paper. I probably don't read enough academic papers.

(By the way, when trying to post, I get an Invalid URL 'http://www.unfogged.com') Are we on your blacklist now?

cleek

This is a usage fight that's worth fighting.

it's a fight you've already lost.

nobody, outside philosophers and language pedants, cares what the original meaning was, because its new meaning is both widely used and universally understood.

David Moles

I'm with cleek. In fact, I'm not sure I was more than subconsciously aware of the other meaning until I read this post. I've read it, and understood it, dozens or hundreds of times, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to use it myself.

praktike

raises the question.

melancholic

Cleek and Moles, I wholly disagree; while it's futile to try to inhibit new meanings from being formed--this is not an accident of language, but its fundamental character--it's worthwhile to fight for old meanings that provide language its richness.

This new meaning of the phrase, in my opinion, while comprehensible, is simply not as interesting as the old.

cleek

This new meaning of the phrase, in my opinion, while comprehensible, is simply not as interesting as the old.

so, come up with a new phrase that means the same as what you want "beg the question" to mean. use Latin, even.

or, use "circular reasoning".

Max Edison

"Begs the question" to mean "x demands that y be asked" demeans a great phrase: Raises the question. If you are too stupid or lazy to use it, then there is a spot in the deepest pits of hell reservef for your eternity.

trostky

Given how widely used and universally understood, as an earlier commenter noted, the "wrong" meaning is, I wonder if the "correct" usage is in fact misunderstood by the majority of readers.

cleek

I wonder if the "correct" usage is in fact misunderstood by the majority of readers.

i didn't know the 'correct' meaning until just a couple of years ago - and i still have a hard time remembering it because the phrase "begs the question" seems completely unrelated to what it used to mean, and very related to what it means today.

Jonathan Lundell

I'd prefer to hang on to the phrase, but I think it's a lost cause. That's a shame, because as others have pointed out, "begs the question" doesn't really make much sense as a near-synonym of "raises the question".

"Raises the question" is perhaps a little too polite, when the sense you're after is "demands...", but again, "begs" isn't really right either.

We lost "comprises"; I think we've lost "begs the question".

Jacob T. Levy

All right, now that sentiment on the thread is turning in the direction of evil I'll get *really* cantankerous and say that this isn't just a case of ordinary semantic drift-- that the ["old"] meaning got lost because so few people care about the structure of arguments at all. Fighting to keep the phrase isn't just an instance of fighting to preserve old linguistic usages and distinctions. It's also a fight to preserve the thought that logic matters, and that there are mistakes of argument and reasoning that need to be identified as mistakes.

The semantic drift might not even bother me so much if "begs the question" had drifted into a perjorative term for something else. But the fact that the new meaning is entirely free or perjorative overtones is a bad sign.

sleepy

So even though the usage of the words themselves is sound, priority goes to the idiom. Interesting.

I did not know that.

Gary Farber

Never surrender.

st

Well, since it is probably true that in terms of actual usage the horse has long since departed the barn on "begs the question," I have simply reverted to the original phrase "beggars the question," in other words, to render a critical question meaningless with your initial assumptions. I have had no problems with anyone understanding what I meant, the two or three times I have needed that concept.

And FWIW, in my opinion "circular reasoning" doesn't cut it - many premises start out with question-beggaring that never return; in fact, the question left in penury at the outset is often the reason the new, flawed concept can travel so far from its starting point. For example, the statement "We must put more money into the current missile defense program because of developing nuclear threats around the world" beggars the question of whether the current program has any technical potential for success. And look how far that has gone.

joe

Every time a writer writes, "begs the question," when that writer means, "raises the question," he should understand that there will be a significant number of readers who will be forced to stop and interpret what the writer actually means. And those readers will be pissed-off that the writer was so sloppy and inconsiderate of their time and attention.

I would recommend that writers use "begs the question" in this fashion every time they seek to achieve this effect.

pjs

This definitely is a fight worth fighting, since the original meaning of the phrase is so great and essential.

I also think that this isn't just a case of mere drift. Those who use the phrase in the "raises the question" sense are, I think, (unconsciously) attracted to it precisely because it sounds fancier than "raises the question." It still sounds to the ears like something very logical and precise (even if it's no longer being used that way). The result is that the new usage sounds less like a creative, innovative use of language, and more like the non-word "irregardless." Maybe this will change, as the new meaning completely overtakes the old one. But I think that's why this usage grates so much.

Mike

Frankly, I could care less.

JR

The more recent usage would require "begs for the question." Oliver didn't beg the porridge, did he?

So the newer usage is not merely wrong, it's also a solecism.

The difficulty people like Cleek have with the real meaning is that word "question" in this context does not mean an interrogatory. It's an obsolete usage that means "the issue under discussion" (as in "put the question to a vote"). So to "beg the question" means to seek to obtain the desired result for free, as if by begging. When it's understood it's a colorful image and one worth saving.

PS- ST's assumption that "begs the question" is a corruption of "beggars the question" is a classical example of a folk etymology. When the meaning of a word or phrase becomes unclear due to changes in meaning, people attempt to reconstruct the origins in a way that makes sense to them. In so doing they often corrupt the word. A couple of my favorites - "bridegroom," from "bridegome," "gome" being an obsolete word for "man;" and "sparrowgrass" for asparagus, for obvious reasons.

st

"Well, I never!" I harrumphed, upon reading JR's snarky insinuations. I yanked down my Dictionary of Modern American Usage and flipped with a flourish to the "b"s. "Begs the question, begs the...aha! It's right here, in black and..." My voice trails off, and is replaced by a short spate of flipping pages, then a snap as I shut the book. "Well, no matter!" I cried, undaunted. "Surely Fowler's will answer!" Striding back to the shelf, I pulled down my trusty 2nd Edition, and cracked it open. More flipping, then silence.

"But...but I was so sure..."

Oh, well. My new problem is that I like "beggars the question," but I now know that I'm just another dope knocking permanence out of the language. And what I'm doing is kind of worse - I'm actively rewiting history, not just stumbling over a turn of phrase. Well, crap.

sleepy

The number of befuddled readers will probably not be all that significant. The original meaning seems at this point to be the less common.

And since either rendition depends on legitimate usages of the words involved and is also immediately obvious from context, those remaining bewildered are maybe just being stubborn.

(But the original isn't "beggar", which has an entirely different meaning as a verb, one that doesn't apply to either case).

st

sleepy - Beggar has two meanings as a verb, one of which is "To make a beggar of; impoverish."

JT's criticism is the right one - my derivation is wrong. The phrase I'm using does make sense, it's just inaccurate as the source of "begs the question." Whether it technically makes sense or not, though, I am going to stop using it, for the reason cited in my post above.

bw

sleepy, that "the original meaning seems at this point to be less common," (&, btw, you have absolutely no scientific proof for this claim) is no reason to give up the fight. NEVER SURRENDER indeed!

words have MEANINGS. they are important. usage is tricky - especially in English, since it's grammatical structure is so plastic in comparison to other languages (word order, noun/verb placement, etc.) usage is somewhat defined by aesthetic choices. however, that does not mean one who chooses a phrase or a word in order to make themselves sound intelligent w/o knowing its origin or meaning should be able to get away w/ it.

another classic example is the word INFER. the words INFER & IMPLY are often used interchangably now, which is sad: their original meanings offer knowledge of direction - one MAKES an implication, one GATHERS AN inference.

bw

sleepy, that "the original meaning seems at this point to be less common," (&, btw, you have absolutely no scientific proof for this claim) is no reason to give up the fight. NEVER SURRENDER indeed!

words have MEANINGS. they are important. usage is tricky - especially in English, since it's grammatical structure is so plastic in comparison to other languages (word order, noun/verb placement, etc.) usage is somewhat defined by aesthetic choices. however, that does not mean one who chooses a phrase or a word in order to make themselves sound intelligent w/o knowing its origin or meaning should be able to get away w/ it.

another classic example is the word INFER. the words INFER & IMPLY are often used interchangably now, which is sad: their original meanings offer knowledge of direction - one MAKES an implication, one GATHERS AN inference.

mikeO

I beg to question. Could someone clarify the meaning of "begs the question"?
The answer to this question has been buggered. The “beggars the question” explanation has been questioned. Many proposed this solution, but the point remains moot: Are beggars the question?
If so what is the answer, if not what was the question, again?

dumbf**k

Could someone give me a few more examples of the allegedly proper way to use the phrase?

btw: to "raise the question" is not equivalent to begging it in the modern usage. The question is one that begs to be asked and answered. A question that hasn't been raised but ought to be. That is: raises a new and important question that is probably not answerable.

Arne Langsetmo

The "philosopher's usage" is consistent with the natural parsing of the phrase. The idea of "presupposing your conclusions" (or more liberally, in making or asserting unproved assumptions including the conclusion) can naturally be described as "begging the question" of whether the assumption or conclusion is in fact valid. I'd note that the most common mode of usage leaves the specifics of exactly what question is begged implicit in the remark left unfinished, and up to the listener to determine; perhaps an unwise move as the listener is often the villain and thinks that there are no such non-obvious assumptions to begin with....

Of course, that doesn't prevent misuse of the phrase when in fact there are not any such unproven assumptions in the opponent's argument, but rather simply just a difference of opinion on the actual facts at hand.

HTH.

Cheers,

Arne Langsetmo

BTW, here's one take on begging the question. Note that this is not the same as circulus in demonstrando

HTHT.

Cheers,

Jim

For a linguist's take on the question (but not a begging thereof), see:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-beg1.htm

mr t

I prefer to say "bug the question" as in bugger the question as in sophists and language nazis kindly bugger off...

sleepy

I was thinking of beggar in the sense of "to impoverish". I just wasn't sure how the question in question would be impoverished.

Would Oliver beg for a question? If he wanted one he might. Or he might ask for the question, with a reduced sense of urgency. And then again he also might ask the question (Please,sir) expecting in this case, an answer rather than a question. 'Begs for the question', differs from 'begs (asks) the question' in much the same way as 'asks for the question' from 'asks the question'. But if he asks the porridge, even if he begs the porridge, he shouldn't expect to be answered, not even with a question.

And no, I don't have any scientific evidence that the newer usage of the phrase is more common. Likewise, I haven't seen any suggesting that its less common. It seems so, at least to me. Just as it seems to me that this is a case of specialists expecting a technical phrase to retain a specific usage in the broader world.

In a technical context it has and should keep its precise meaning. In everyday usage, it'll do what it will and no ropes will bind it.

Joebob

Frankly, I could care less.

That term doesn't seem like it is correct either. If you could care less then why don't you? Wouldn't it be grammatically correct to say that you couldn't care less?

One way makes it sound as though care at least a bit; the other way makes it sound as though you don't care at all.

Mo MacArbie

All of which begs the question, "How do you say nukular?"

(Ducks)

Grimaldo

"x demands that we ask y' is just plain something you often want to say."

Nope. Wrong. The x demanding y thought would probably never cross your mind as something that is worth writing down. The reason it does occur to you, and occurs to a lot of people lately, is that the ready-made thought-free phrase is available. If you never use it again, you won't miss it and your writing will flow along just fine.

Rusty Shackleford

This has bothered me for a long time. I'm just glad that someone still has an understanding of what the idiom has always heretofore meant. I've witnessed the slide of it into its current declasse usage and privately fretted. It is worth keeping and defending, even though it may be difficult perhaps to define how wrong this current usage is.

same shit, Different Doug

A point should be made that misuse of this phrase by a writer is particularly annoying. Words are their tools. A goofball on a barstool using "begs the question" incorrectly or using the word "irregardless" isn't nearly as troublesome as when a professional writer does the same.

ScottA

Not that linguistic meaning is a matter for votes, but were I a voting man and the usage of "begs the question" were on the ballot, I'd be a conservative, in the good old fashioned sense.

How about "ignores the question," which is as often as not what one means to say by "raises the question" or the much maligned "begs the question"?

Evan

Hey, you know what I've noticed? Whenever someone writes something of the form:

That begs the question.
...with a period at the end like that, they always mean it in the logical/philosophical sense: i.e., in reference to circular reasoning. But on the other hand, when someone writes something of the form:
That begs the question, "What should we have for lunch?"
...with a question mark, then they always mean it in the colloquial (aka "wrong") sense.

It's incredibly easy to disambiguate the two meanings. So who gives a damn?

Mark A. York

It implies circular reasoning. Nothing more need be said. If the fallacy fits.

Kackalack

> Frankly, I could care less.

That term doesn't seem like it is correct either. If you could care less then why don't you? Wouldn't it be grammatically correct to say that you couldn't care less?

Um, yep. Given the post topic, I think it was a joke. A little ha-ha.

american woman

Argh!!!!

Dear Defenders of The Phrase,

Your disdain for the misuse of "begs the question" is clear. You hate it. I get that. "Save The Phrase!" I'm listening! I understand. (Really I do. I morn the demise of The English Adverb, for crying out loud.)

You've given several examples of how not to use "begs the question." You've provided great alternative phrases. But after reading through this entire thread, I still do not understand how to properly use "begs the question."

Examples please! And if you'd like help defending the language, make them fantastic examples. Sincere thanks. :)

Phil Vitale

Like everything else that's been going on in this country let's just do whatever we feel like and not bother with finding out what the actual rules are. I'm only in favor of anarchy when it serves a purpose but since the point of anarchy is not to serve any purpose then I suppose I'm just not in favor of stupidity. "Begging the question" is a logical construct used in arguments. And you will all know what it means if you go to Fowler's modern english usage and look it up. The phrase actually makes sense. You're making a conclusion based on a suspicious or deficient conclusion. If someone is actually begging (on hands and knees) to ask a question well that's a different fucking story. Just say it that way! I remember when this all started! It was about a dozen years ago in JAD sessions I attended for an application I was working on when some smartass, who, btw , was a fucking rehabilitated lawyer, decided to say: "I'd like to beg this question" when in fact he meant I'd like to ask this question. . .SO ASK THE FUCKING QUESTION and stop trying to be so smart because you're not.

Aeon J. Skoble

John, keep fighting the good fight on this one. It's easy enough to say "such-and-such raises the question of..." The only reason anyone uses "beg" here is that in the back of their lizard brains somewhere is the recollection of having heard the expression "begging the question," which as you note means something else entirely. Never surrender. (BTW, I realize that many other commenters said the same thing, but I didn't know if you were tallying responses.)

Yan

Damn straight! And marriage is meant for a man and a woman! Fight the good fight!

Anthony

Since nobody really answered american woman: 'begging the question' in its proper sense isn't an idiom you can just sprinkle around in a conversation. It's a way of labelling a particular kind of argument which is based on on an unfounded premise. So the way you use it is as follows:
A: (Insert Philosophy 101 example here, such as) God exists, because he told us he does.
B: That's begging the question.

Personally I don't mind the fact that the idiomatic use is taking over. 'Begs the question' is a dumb descriptor for something that demands a better one. So there.

Felix Grant

This philosopher is moved to wonder whether some people don't have lives to live...

They seem, in any case, to have overlooked the fact that the philosophical use of "begging the question" is an annexation of an already extant phrase from ordinary day to day language.

Within philosophy, it has the strict meaning which is here being defended. In day to day vernacular it has a longer history than that. By what right does philosophy demand that the older common usage be abandoned? Each is valid usage within its own domain, and not elsewhere.

Please, guys - get out more!

sleepy

Hi Felix,

The technical usage is the original usage, back to the 16th century. The colloquial usage seems to be only 30 or so years old.

But I think the rest of your post is spot on.

Egghead

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.

Matt Weiner

I regretfully agree with Felix--this confusion won't arise in technical philosophy, where everyone uses it right (to beg the question), and civilians are not going to go back to our much nicer way of using the phrase.

The philosophical usage doesn't always end after "beg the question"--often we must say exactly what question is being begged. e.g., "When person X says that internalist justification is of dubious epistemic value because it is not connected to knowledge, she begs the question of whether knowledge itself has epistemic value."

I'm under the impression that "beg the question" is a literal translation of the Latin petitio principi, which meant something like "appealing to the thing that was to be established."

sleepy

"Begs the question" is a very rough translation of petitio principi. "Question the beginning" is better. "Petition the principle" is a little awkward, but it works on a root level. "Question the assumptions."

"Begs" in English, means "to ask."

joe

Look, this is America. You can use the phrase in any way you wish. You can also pick your nose in public if you want. If you do so, some people will be grossed out, but others won't be.

rabbit

Petitio principii (there are 2 i's at the end) describes the faulty logic, not what you should do to avoid it. It's an "appeal to the principle" -- i.e., an attempt to prove something through an appeal to that same thing.

The Fool

You can misuse "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" if you want, but you will be instantly revealed as ignorant.

By the same logic we should say "nucular" and we should call mounted soldiers "calvary."

Jeremy Osner

Hey be sure to check Brad Plumer's take on the question. (4th paragraph)

Jason

I'm no grammar ace, but I am annoyed at how many writers (myself included) insist on pulling from a grab bag of phrases rather than constructing their own. Re-using two words put together, such as "such as", or "rather than" seems acceptable to me, but when you go so far as to keep "begs the question" in your back pocket I think you're being lazy and overly-derivative. Begs? Does it really beg? It's also one of those phrases that seems to be missing a word. In this case, "for". A dog begs for a bone. A dog doesn't beg a bone. I think it's an over-used, overly dramatic, and ultimately obnoxious phrase.

Over and out!

Solomon Grundy

This is what I think.

Basically, I agree with everyone above that "raise the question" is at least as pleasant to the ear. More importantly, it isn't pretentious and ignorant.

That's the problem with the misuse of "begs": it's fucking pretentious, evidence of someone with only half an education. Whenever I read it in print my esteem of the writer declines by half and I assume they majored in cultural studies or went to Brown or something.

JFW

If it's so difficult to understand the correct meaning and so easy to understand the incorrect meaning, shouldn't that tell us that the correct meaning doesn't have much meaning?

Neal Whitman

For another linguist's point of view on beg the question, there's this post.

Neal Whitman

For another linguist's point of view on beg the question, there's this post.

JR

It's three years later, this blog entry is dead, but what's funniest of all, is how a Google search of "beggar the question" now turns up dozens of instances of people using THAT phrase as a substitute for "raises the question".

So now not only is there a historical usage error, but just a plain old logical error. It doesn't make a shred of sense to substitute "beggars the question" for "raises the question" and yet check it out for yourself via Google.

LOL!

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