Phrase Friday: Beg the Question

The phrase “beg the question” has become the center of quite a controversy. It is so commonly misused that quite a large contingent of journalists, writers, and others who ought to know better are getting it wrong. There is even a “BTQ Abuse” awareness movement with their own website (check it out, it’s pretty funny).

Begging the question is a type of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without any proof or backup other than the statement itself. For instance, when you were a kid and you asked your parents, “Why do I have to do that?” and they said, “Because I said so!”, they were begging the question. It is a type of circular reasoning in which the thing you are trying to prove is assumed to be true as a premise of your argument.

Michael Quinion offers a good explanation of the origin of the phrase:

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”.

The common incorrect use of the phrase is in place of “to raise or prompt the question.” It’s an easy mistake to make, since the modern meaning of “beg” is to petition or ask for something. An example of this incorrect usage can be found in the San Diego Free Press – they misused it right in their headline.

The argument has been made that the modern misuse of the phrase is now so common that it ought to be recognized as acceptable. While I disagree, it is certainly up for discussion. What do you think? Please comment and let me know!

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