Column: A Word, Please: A common phrase may not ‘beg the question’
Years ago I wrote in this space that I don’t recall ever hearing someone use “beg the question” to mean “raise the question.”
A blogger stumbled across the column and deemed my assertion highly implausible. The usage is so common, the blogger wrote, that surely I’d heard it many times.
It wasn’t implausible to me. I spend most of my time around wordy types who, consciously or not, avoid this meaning of “beg the question.”
What a difference a few years make. Suddenly, I understand why the blogger doubted me. Lately I hear “beg the question” every week or two, and it’s always used to mean “raise the question.” All of a sudden, it seems this usage is everywhere.
What changed? Easy. I started watching television news.
Before, I stuck to print sources. But lately, I’m neck-deep in well-coiffed TV commenters. Here’s an example of how they use this expression.
Talking Head 1: The president wants to build a border wall.
Talking Head 2: That begs the question: Who will pay for it?
A lot of people say that’s wrong. And those people aren’t necessarily wrong. The strict meaning of “beg the question” comes from a Latin term, petitio principii, which translates to “assume the original point.”
It refers to a very specific type of logical fallacy: “to base a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself.”
Here’s an example of someone begging the question.
Talking Head 1: Should we build a border wall?
Talking Head 2: You’re right! We should use a red ribbon and not a yellow one at the border wall groundbreaking ceremony!
Talking Head 2 ignored the original question, acting as though it was already resolved. That’s begging the question in the traditional sense. And how often do you hear someone use “beg the question” to talk about a logical fallacy like that? Never, right?
When you look up “beg the question,” hoping to get to the bottom of what it means and how it should be used, you encounter a whole bunch of experts discussing not whether it means “raise a question” but whether it means “dodge a question.”
“Many people, untrained in the finer points of logical argument, apply the phrase ‘beg the question’ to the obvious result — dodging the issue — without worrying about the manner in which dodging was accomplished,” notes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “The result of these people’s use of the phrase is a new meaning of ‘beg’ that the lexicographers must account for: to evade, to sidestep.”
Merriam offers examples, like this one attributed to the 1947 “Literature and Morality” by James T. Farrell: “The conditions of profit, of control, demand that the real question be side-stepped. The formula of entertainment is the means of begging the question.”
I’ve never encountered that use of “beg.” Have you?
The real question is: Can “beg the question” mean “raise the question”? Here’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (not to be confused with the Merriam usage guide cited above): “beg the question: 1. to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response. ‘The quarterback’s injury begs the question of who will start in his place.’”
So, yes, the dictionary allows you to use it this way. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Careful speakers might do better to follow the advice of Garner’s Modern American Usage: “The use of ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘raise another question’ is so ubiquitous that the new sense has been recognized by most dictionaries and sanctioned by descriptive observers of the language. Still, though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it sloppy.”
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.