Don’t Beg the Question

Did you know: “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you* think it means.

* “You” applies to 90.1%** of living English-speaking people.

** This figure was plucked from the æther, so it must be true.

What Does It Mean?

Traditionally, if one’s argument begs the question, it assumes the initial point. That is, it’s a circular argument. I once heard that this term comes from “begetting the original question”. Examples of begging the question in this sense are:

I have chosen simplistic examples for clarity. Even if an argument is part of a much longer chain of reasoning, it begs the question if it assumes the very point that it sets out to prove.

In popular usage, to beg a question seems to mean to invite a question, as in “This latest political promise begs the question of where the government will get so much money.”

What If I Say It?

If you use the phrase “begs the question,” there are three distinct possibilities. Either:

  1. you have used it to mean “invites the question”, in which case you have used it incorrectly—those in the know (including you now!) will despise you for it;
  2. you have used it to mean “begets the original question”, in which case you will feel smug about yourself and 90.1%** of people won’t know what you’re talking about; or
  3. you have used it to mean something else entirely—congratulations, now you’re really in a class of your own!

I Dislike All Three Possibilities! What Should I Do?

In my opinion? Language is for communicating. If you mean “invites the question”, say “invites the question”. If you mean “begets the original question”, say “begets the original question”, or if you really want to feel smug, say “petitio principii”. At least that way your listeners will know that they don’t know what you’re talking about.

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