The word nerd rides again

“Begging the question” is a type of circular reasoning. There is no statement here not already “proved” by another statement.

Several times recently I’ve heard someone misuse the phrase “begs the question.” I’ve long known it does not mean to raise or pose a question that needs to be answered. But offhand I could not explain its proper use, so off to Google I went.

Most of the explanations I found were not very clear because they didn’t give good examples. One source said: “‘Begging the question’ is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself.”

That clears it right up, doesn’t it?

Wikipedia elaborates: “Begging the question means ‘assuming the conclusion (of an argument),’ a type of circular reasoning. This is an informal fallacy where the conclusion that one is attempting to prove is included in the initial premise of an argument, often in an indirect way that conceals this fact.” The entry includes an extensive history of the phrase which, while interesting, leaves one rather lost in the weeds.

Finally, an old New York Times article by Philip B. Corbett explains: “… it does not mean ‘to raise the question’ or ‘to beg that the question be asked’ or even ‘to evade the question.’ Rather, it refers to a circular argument; it means ‘to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.'” And follows with excellent examples of correct and incorrect usage:

Instead, I’ll try to clarify the meaning with a pair of made-up examples. Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.

YOU: That begs the question.

ME: Huh?

Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.

But imagine this conversation.

ME: I can’t understand why all the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous.

YOU: I’m sure they do it just to sell papers and magazines.

ME: Yeah — which begs the question, why do people want to read about her?

YOU: That’s not begging the question. That’s simply raising the question.

ME: Huh?

My use is incorrect, though it is becoming extremely common.

Thank you, Mr. Corbett!

The misuse of the phrase has become so common that its correct meaning may soon be lost altogether. Especially when word nerds like me recognize incorrect usage by others but avoid using the phrase ourselves for fear we’ve forgotten the correct usage.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m no longer being paid to police this stuff.


Pundits and politicians love to use this sort of highfalutin but meaningless language.



20 thoughts on “The word nerd rides again

  1. I’ve always assumed that “begs the question” refers to a statement that carries with it a premise of questionable merit. To invest this phrase with more complexity than that is, I think, to invite confusion and controversy. Imagine two Valley Girls grappling with this. OMG!

    I can accept both Lindsay Lohan examples as meaningful because the premise of the statement in each case is questioned by the phrase. Nevertheless, I enjoyed your examples and essay. Any discussion of circular logic has to be healthy when there’s so much of it flying around! 🙂

    1. It does get very complex. As long as “begs the question” isn’t used to mean “raises the question” or “begs that the question be asked,” I try not to worry about it. (Old editors die hard.) I really got into the briar patch on this when I came across a piece explaining that Descartes’s famous “I think therefore I am” is an example of begging the question. Oy vey.

  2. I wandered into similar territory last week with a headline I used on a letter, which included the phrase “just deserts.” Several people told me that I was just wrong … sheesh. Now I’m using that in my column/blog post this week, and hoping not to sound too grammar-snobby.
    With all this misuse, one day we’ll have no idea what any of these idioms mean or how they’re spelled. Please let me die before then,

  3. Interesting – never knew this. The thing that drives me crazy is the use of the word literally – “I literally mean that.” “That’s like literally true.” That literally makes me want to put my head in the oven. 🙂

    1. I almost mentioned the literally/figuratively thing as an outstanding example of how language, if misused often enough, eventually becomes accepted. It figuratively drives me crazy.

  4. This phrase strikes me as similar to another, i.e. “the exception that proves the rule,” or “the proof of the pudding.” In each case a word used in the English of a few generations back has shifted meaning, so that the common colloquial phrases that employ those words become meaningless over time.

    I agree it’s probably futile to try to stop the tide of changing language usage but perhaps all the more so in phrases of this sort, where “beg” and “proof” no longer mean what they used to. (The old meaning of proof survives also in “printer’s proof,” doesn’t it?)

    1. Well, I’ve just learned something new. My understanding of “the proof of the pudding” has been essentially correct all these years. But I always thought “the exception that proves the rule” sounded nonsensical, as though someone had mangled some other expression — and I always let it pass without questioning it or looking it up. Until now. Now I know. Thanks. And yes, “printer’s proof” is certainly related.

  5. Thanks for the excellent distinction between ‘begs the question’ and ‘raises or poses the question.’ My alter-ego, Dr. Language Guy, approves highly of the Word Nerd.

    My favorite misused phrase is ‘falls between the cracks.’ If something falls between the cracks, then it falls on the ground. What we mean to say is ‘falls into a crack.’

    1. Or “falls through the cracks.” I hear “falls between the cracks” all the time and I cringe every time. If people would just think about what they’re saying, they’d realize falling between the cracks is a physical impossibility.

... and that's my two cents