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.
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.
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.