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Begging that damned question

Comic2 724

Something that bugs the hell out of me, literally, is the misuse of English. Of course, I was trained as a subeditor in the days when such things mattered even to journalists, so I am a fossilised dinosaur in this respect. I even try to use adverbs correctly. One thing that literally makes my head explode, is the misuse by academics of the phrase “begs the question” to mean “raises a question”.

“Begging the question” is a colloquial translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which means to petition the premise of an argument in your conclusion. Whately defines it thus: [it] “takes place when one of the Premisses (whether true or false) is either plainly equivalent to the conclusion, or depends upon that for its own reception.” This is also called “circular reasoning” or “arguing in a vicious circle”.

However, even among the cognoscenti, it has come to mean “raises a question in a context”. For example, I hear commentators say that a particular fact “begs the question why”… and I give an involuntary shudder every time.

Linguistic usage, however, trumps rules of style. Unfortunately, how people use a language determines the meaning of a term or phrase, and if all but a few use it this way, then it has come to mean that. During the transition from the older use to the newer, curmudgeons like me can assert that the new use is an error, but once the tide has washed in, too late. Descriptivism overrules prescriptivism.

But now we need a phrase for the older meaning. It is a basic logical error, and “vicious circle” doesn’t quite capture the mistake. I would suggest that a lot of the work of the older phrase was done by the term “beg”, and that is what changed its overall connotations, leading to the drift in meaning of the phrase. So what is it to “beg” a question? It is to help yourself to something that is not earned (the premise in question). How about we go a little more forcefully, and call it “stealing” the question (like stealing a base in American baseball)? You don’t get there by hitting a ball but by sneaky activity in the background.

Henceforth, all you cognoscenti must call this “stealing the question”, and allow all those logical illiterates to continue to call raising a question “begging the question”. And we purists will continue to vomit a little each time.


  1. The ruin of the expression “begging the question” is part of a more general tendency to weaken terms that have to do with belief or argument. The one that gets me, perhaps because it is a bit more subtle, is the way that the word “refute,” which used to mean something like “succeed in showing the falsity of,” has come to merely mean “argue against.” The word “know” is also feebler now. I find people using it to mean something like “I think this is true.” Time was, when you said you knew something, you were making a pretty strong claim, i.e. that you weren’t merely subjectively sure of something but had definitive reasons to be sure of your conclusion. Well, this sort of thing is what comes of the silly idea that everybody has a right to their own opinion.

    • I’m reminded of Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” malapropism. One refutes by showing it is wrong, and one repudiates by rejecting. By mixing the two she illicitly suggested that in repudiating she had refuted.

      • Matthew B. Matthew B.

        Palin wasn’t the first to coin it (though she probably thinks she is) – ‘refudiate’ can be found very occasionally in US newspapers throughout the 20th century, at least as far back as the 1910s. There doesn’t seem to be any continuity of usage, but it was still interesting to find out.

  2. The first time I ever noticed someone use the phrase “begging the question” was in a religious work published in 1984 (“The Race” by John White).

    In that context he’s talking about the perceived dichotomy between the wrathful god of the OT and the loving god of the NT, and refers to people he knows who claim that the transition occurs in Isaiah. He accuses these people of “begging the question”. As far as I can tell he could have said “leaping to a conclusion prematurely”.

    I don’t remember when I first learned what “begging the question” actually means, but I do remember that White’s use of the phrase puzzled me for some time. It is not an expression that can be understood simply by reading it in context (and let’s acknowledge that “stealing the question” is no improvement in this respect).

    I always think of it in these terms: “Hey, Question: if I pretend you’re not there by tacitly assuming the Answer I prefer, will you go away? PLEASE???”

  3. Brian Brian

    One thing that literally makes my head explode Photos, or it didn’t happen!

    I always found the phrase, begging the question odd. Vicious circle, with an accompanying image of snake biting it’s tail, works better in my unlearned opinion.

  4. TomS TomS

    Language purists believe that random variations (“mistakes”) relentlessly lead to deterioration. The “fossil” evidence of the ways that, for example, mistakes in Old Latin lead to the grammar of Cicero’s Latin demonstrates that a “2nd law of thermodynamics” does not lead to “entropy” taking over.

  5. To raise the premise;-)

  6. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Or ‘begs the question’ in modern usage, ‘invites the opinion’, and in the older usage ‘implies the opinion’?

  7. Mike Lyle Mike Lyle

    Attaboy, John! We were talking about you in Oxford yesterday while admiring the ducks at OUP

  8. Ian H Spedding Ian H Spedding

    It bugs me too but I find myself doing it anyway. I will default to “begs the question” and each time have to stop and think about whether or not I’m pointing out a circular argument.

    Here’s another one, if two aircraft pass dangerously close to each other without actually colliding, is that a near-collision or a near-miss?

    • TomS TomS

      I don’t want to go on my personal my personal dislikes.
      But I have a usage which has bothered me for some time, and it is so common that I wonder why no one has commented on it. This has been a force in language change, so I thought that must be a name for it.
      Will you bear with me in going off-topic?
      Consider the word “forensic”, originally meaning “pertaining to the law court”. As in “forensic scientist”, one who uses science in investigating a crime. And then there is a contamination of meaning, so that “forensic” alone bears all of the meaning of the phrase. So, on the cop shows, the cop says, “Bring in the forensics.”
      After many years of thinking about this, I have never come across a discussion.
      (I am almost, in desperation, thinking of calling this “pars pro toto”.)
      Excuse me, for going off-topic, but I’m getting desperate.

  9. Hi John,

    I’m inclined to resist the tide of inevitable change. The original usage has a distinct meaning and the new meaning is served by other phrases.

    That said, there’s something to be said for the usage of the present participle instead of the present tense. It seems to me that the phrase “begging the question” almost always refers to the logical fallacy while “begs the question” is now more likely to mean raising the question.

  10. colinhutton colinhutton

    We (shouldn’t that be ‘us’? :)) purists will lose this one. To add insult to injury, we dare not use the phrase during its transitional phase. The purists will vomit and despise us, or the rest will misunderstand us. As the case may be.

    Harder to use the avoidance technique with grammar. Such as the execrable, but increasing, substitution of ‘I’ for ‘me’. As in, for example, ‘he gave it to my wife and I’.

    Reminds me of a nice sentence in one of Damon Runyon’s short stories: “Whom are you”, he asked, having been to night-school.

    • TomS TomS

      “… to my wife and I”
      I once heard this explained by the contrast “me”:”I” being not objective:subjective but unmarked:marked.
      (Of course I, as I assume many of the readers, remember being corrected for saying “… and me”.)

      • colinhutton colinhutton

        I prefer to get the the incorrect user to concede (they generally do) that they wouldn’t say “give it to I’ and then, further, wouldn’t say “give it to I and my wife”. If so, they are generally open to the point that changing the word order does not change the grammar and that ‘me’ is therefore correct .

  11. I’m with Brian. I want to see the exploding head.

    • TomS TomS

      One common use of literally to mean figuratively is belief in the literal Fall of Adam. Obviously, belief is not concerned with whether Adam slid on a banana peel (in the Garden of Eden, that being comical without being painful, of course) or used a bungee-cord.

  12. mijnheer mijnheer

    In professional baseball, stealing a base requires attention, timing, speed, and skill; it’s more like a knowledgeable thief stealing a painting from a well-guarded museum than it is like a museum visitor confusing a Picasso with a Renoir through sheer ignorance.

  13. What is the problem with using the term “circular reasoning”?

  14. Grammaranon Grammaranon

    “One thing that literally makes my head explode”

    Are you sure your English skills are as good as you think?

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