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Beg the question

Q From George Beuselinck: Recently, I have observed that begging the question has come to mean ‘raising the question’. Is this still an improper usage, or has the meaning of the phrase changed due to the usage?

A This one really bugs people who know some logic and are familiar with the classical languages. From my attempts to research the point, it also seems to cause trouble for dictionary writers and compilers of style guides, so much so that I’ve not found two authorities that entirely agree on the nature of the problem or which senses of beg the question are acceptable.

You can easily find examples of the sense you quote, which is used just as though one might say “prompt the question” or “forces one to ask”. Here’s an example from the Independent on Sunday about gay weddings: “It begs the question why the Church ever sanctioned something it now abominates?”. This meaning of the phrase seems to have grown up because people have turned for a model to other phrases in beg, especially the well-known I beg to differ, where beg is a fossil verb that actually used to mean “humbly submit”. But the way we use beg to differ these days makes beg the question look the same as “wish to ask”. It doesn’t — or at least, it didn’t.

The original sense is of a logical fallacy, of taking for granted or assuming the thing that you are setting out to prove. To take an example, you might say that lying is wrong because we ought always to tell the truth. That’s a circular argument and makes no sense. Another instance is to argue that democracy must be the best form of government because the majority is always right. The fallacy was described by Aristotle in his book on logic in about 350BC. His Greek name for it was turned into Latin as petitio principii and then into English in 1581 as beg the question. Most of our problems arise because the person who translated it made a hash of it. The Latin might better be translated as “laying claim to the principle”.

Very often, the fact that you are using the matter to be proved as part of your argument is a good deal more subtle than in these examples. It comes across rather as an attempt to evade the issue or avoid giving a straightforward answer, making the phrase mean “avoid the question”. This meaning of the phrase is common and most authorities agree it is now part of standard English.

The meaning you give is the newest. It is gaining ground, and one or two recent dictionaries claim that it is now acceptable — the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, says it is “widely accepted in modern standard English”. I wouldn’t go so far myself. Because of possible confusion over what you actually mean, and inevitable condemnation from people who have taken the trouble to find out what it once did mean, it’s better avoided altogether.

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Page created 27 May 2000