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Begging for a Question Posted by on Apr 25, 2019 in English Grammar, English Language

We hear it, or read it, all the time in English. A statement is made, followed by “…Which begs the question…”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

Does it? Does it really?

I am about to get up on my grammatical soapbox, which is to say that I am about to rant. Forgive me, but it’s time to stop the annoying misuse of an all-too-common English phrase.

Let me give you a typical example. Consider this exchange between two commentators on a TV talk show:

“Every time the Press Secretary is interviewed he responds with talking points and never directly answers a question.”

“He’s an idiot who will just say the same thing over and over again.”

“Which begs the question – Why bother interviewing him at all?”

At this point, I throw something at my television, yelling something about the parentage of the talking heads on the screen in front of me, then turn the TV off. Never, ever follow the phrase begs the question with a question!

Okay. I admit that there are many words and phrases in English which are commonly misused every day. I’m going to go lay down is improper, it should be I am going to lie down. Fine. We know what you meant, even if you were grammatically incorrect. Or, I could care less when the proper phrase is I couldn’t care less. That’s the nature of the English language. It gets mangled so often that commonplace mistakes are taken for granted.

So, why do I flip out when someone follows the phrase Begs the question with a question? First, let’s understand what the phrase actually means.

Begging the question is a logical fallacy. The phrase originated in the 16th century as a mistranslation of the Latin petitio principii, which translates to “assuming the initial point”. It is a statement which is assumed to be true without the need to supply proof of its veracity. It is a type of circular reasoning, an argument which requires that the conclusion is true without any supporting facts. Put it another way, the argument is proof of the argument. “Gay marriage should be illegal because it is wrong.” That is merely a restatement of the premise of the argument. Such statements beg the question.

Therefore, if someone presents you with a statement such as, “Mozart is the greatest composer of all time because there was never anyone better.” You would be justified in replying, “That begs the question.” It is the same thing as stating, “Assuming the premise of the argument is evidence of your argument.”

Now, however, people have interpreted the phrase literally. Somehow, we have come to believe that to beg the question is to raise the question. Why is it so wrong to misuse the phrase? Because it makes the person who says it, then follows with a question, look foolish. It elevates the fallacy to the status of a debate. You can’t debate circular reasoning. Nor should you. The proper thing to do is to call out logical fallacies whenever you hear them.

In the earlier example, the television commentators should have said, “The Press Secretary is an idiot who says the same thing over and over again.” Followed by, “Which raises the question – Why have him on at all?”

In every case, when someone follows the phrase, Which begs the question… with a question, they really mean to say, Which raises the question…

Rant over.

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