Episode 127: August 19, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today I'm going to beg the question.
Ellen at Swarthmore said she would appreciate it if I talk about the misuse of the phrase begs the question. "I keep seeing it as a way to say The question begs to be asked or The question that should be asked," she says.
Well, Ellen, you're right. You do hear it used to mean "raises the question," but that's not what it really means.
The Right Way to Use "Begs the Question"
Begs the question is actually a term that comes from logic, and it's used to indicate that someone has made a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support (1, 2). It can be a premise that's independent from the conclusion (3) or in a simpler form, the premise can be just a restatement of the conclusion itself (4, 5).
For example, let's say Squiggly is trying to convince Aardvark that chocolate is healthful, and his argument is that chocolate grows on trees, so it must be healthful. Aardvark could rightly say there's no proof that something is good for you simply because it grows on a tree. Some things that grow on trees are poisonous--Chinaberry tree fruit, for example (6). So Squiggly's argument is based on a faulty premise.
Aardvark could correctly say that Squiggly's argument begs the question. What does growing on trees have to do with being healthful, anyway?
I remember what begs the question means by thinking that THEE argument raises a specific question--it begs *the* question--What's your support for that premise? OR more informally, What does that have to do with anything? You use the phrase begs the question when people are hoping you won't notice that their reasons for coming to a conclusion aren't valid. They've made an argument based on a lame assumption. The question is What's your support for that premise?
Here's an example of a simple argument that begs the question. This one just restates the conclusion as a basis for the conclusion: Chocolate is healthful because it's good for you. That begs the question. How do you know chocolate is good for you? Again, the question is What's the support for your premise? or What does that have to do with anything? If I didn't just accept that chocolate is healthful, I'm not going to accept that it's healthful because you say it's good for me. They're the same thing. Make a better argument.
The Wrong Way to Use "Begs the Question"
Sadly, begs the question is used wrong a lot. It took me about two seconds to find good examples of bad usage in the news. Many people mistakenly believe it's OK to use the phrase to introduce a clever or obvious question. For example,
After chronicling Natalie Coughlin's accomplishments, a reporter writes: "All of which begs the question, is Coughlin the best female swimmer this country has ever seen?" The reporter is using begs the question to mean something like "makes me wonder."
Here's an example from another paper:
"Board members’ explanations to the public grow more and more vague. This begs the question: What is going on in the minds of these officials who were appointed to serve us?" Again, the reporter seems to think begs the question means something like "makes me wonder" or "leads us to ask."
Common Usage Versus Established Meaning
In fact, that wrong usage is so common some people will argue it's not an error anymore (7). But I'm firmly in the camp that believes it's worthwhile to stick to the formal definition. There are plenty of phrases writers can use when they mean "makes me wonder" or "raises the question." There's no hole in the English language that needs to be filled, so there's no reason to use begs the question improperly.
The quick and dirty tip is to remember that when something begs the question, it begs the question: what is your support for that premise?