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Don't make me beg

Lane Greene | April 30th 2010

At Language Log, a blog by a group of academic linguists, Mark Liberman today talks us through the life and death of a nice piece of formal logic in the public discourse. “To beg the question” was used for centuries to refer to the logical fallacy of trying to sneak the conclusion of your argument as a premise. Aristotle first identified it by the phrase to en archi aiteisthai, which translates as “asking the original point”. Our style guide at The Economist offers as an example: “‘All governments should promote free trade because otherwise protectionism will increase.’ This begs the question.” Via a slightly misleading translation into Latin, petitio prinicpii, late medieval English writers glossed this as “to beg the question”. A more modern shorthand might be “to assume the conclusion”.

But of course that's not how anyone uses the phrase anymore. You’re far more likely to hear something like “What she wore at the cocktail party really begs the question of what she’s going to wear at her birthday.” A quick search in Google Blogs reveals that this “incorrect” use is almost universal:

"Another price-fixing probe begs the question: what is going on?" (Airline Business blog)

"It all begs the question: does it make sense for the federal government to take a second look at amnesty?" (Taxgirl)

"The lamp of all lamps begs the question: WTF?" (GadgetSteria)

Of the top 20 Google Blog results, only two seem to know “beg the question” in its “correct” form. One is Liberman’s original post. The other comes from an atheist blogger, who writes that “PA [presuppositional apologetics] begs the question”.

Indeed it does, given that this school of apologetics presumes the truth of the Bible to defend Christianity.  

Why do I put “correct” in quotes, then? After all, William Safire, a late beloved language pundit at the New York Times, condemned this “incorrect” usage. “In my book, if you mean ‘raise the question’ or ‘pose the question,’ say so," he wrote in 2002, "but if you mean ‘that's a phony argument that turns in on itself,’ say ‘beg the question.’” Someone has even started a website to defend the phrase's honour: begthequestion.info.

But when 18 of 20 people use a phrase incorrectly, it’s safe to say that the language has simply moved on. No amount of insisting on an old usage will ever bring it back. As a student of language, I find this process fascinating, and I don’t get too attached to any given word or phrase. The English of the year 3010 will be vastly different from that of 2010, and there is little that we can do about that. Lieberman, too, is typical as a scholarly linguist: rather than prescribe or proscribe a usage, he simply describes the history and current state of affairs. He suggests retiring the phrase “beg the question” to avoid confusing some people or annoying others. Bryan Garner, a usage-dictionary writer, calls such terms “skunked” – that is, when a phrase means one thing to some people and another thing to others. Such words, including “fulsome”, “enormity” and many others, are often best avoided.

Yet I find myself clinging to the original meaning of “begging the question”. This is because it’s terrifyingly useful: I see questions being begged around me daily. In ancient Greece and Rome, continuing through medieval Europe, formal logic was a cornerstone of education (one of the three parts of the "trivium", along with rhetoric and grammar.) Students were taught to recognise valid chains of reasoning, and to avoid invalid ones. I don't know what political arguments on the streets of Rome were like—only the most polished arguments, carefully written down, survive for us. But I like to think that in an age when everyone was trained to recognise logical fallacies, there was less of what I see nightly on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" or "The O'Reilly Factor".  

Take the phrase "government takeover of health-care", which is found about 873,000 times on the web by Google, and 236 times on the Fox News website. It's often used as a stand-alone argument against the recently passed health-care reform. Besides the factual flaw (the system will remain overwhelmingly private), this contains no argument as to why the government's involvement is a bad thing; it's merely smuggled in as an assumption that government intervention in anything is unthinkably awful. If you say, “I don’t like this bill because it’s a government take-over of health-care,” you’ve begged the question. You might be right on the bill’s merits, but you haven't yet communicated why.

But alas, goodbye to "begging the question". I wish I could keep you around. I can’t make myself use the phrase in its new form, and too few people understand the old one. When someone tells me we should deport illegal immigrants because, well, they're illegal, I wish I could retort "well, at least they don't beg the question." When the man on the subway hands me a tract telling me that I should become a Christian because the Bible tells me so, I wish I could hand it back with a crisp "this is just begging the question!" But he'd say "begging what question? What's the question?" And 18 of 20 of my fellow passengers would believe he got the better of the exchange.

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