‘Begs the question’ is a phrase best avoided
October 17, 2014
By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision
A reader wrote to me about his pet peeve—the misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” He wanted to know whether this rampant misuse had become accepted usage. That can happen, but it hasn’t in this case—and I hope it won’t.
People have an amazing ability to decode the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases by hearing them used in context, but that strategy isn’t reliable for phrases with non-literal meanings. The popularity of playing this losing game of follow-the-leader has resulted in the widespread misuse of the phrase “begs the question.”
As my reader pointed out, “begs the question” does not mean “suggests strongly that one needs to ask the question,” in spite of the fact that almost everyone uses it that way. He gave as an example the following statement he heard on the evening news: “GM knew of the dangers posed by these faulty ignition switches as long ago as 2006, which begs the question: Why weren’t car owners notified immediately?” No, it doesn’t. It raises the question. It brings to mind the question. It might even compel the question. Why not use one of those perfectly acceptable alternatives?
Have you ever noticed the way young children reason with each other? They tend to use magical thinking rather than logic, so they often seem to be talking in circles, without ever proving their point.
Circular reasoning is a fallacious technique whereby the speaker takes the conclusion he or she wants to prove and assumes its truth by using it as the argument’s premise. In Latin, it’s known as petitio principi. If you took college philosophy or debate classes, you most likely learned about it. “Begging the question” means making a circular argument or a logical fallacy, which is one way of evading an issue. This type of reasoning doesn’t offer real proof of its premise.
I looked online for a memorable example and found this by Ernest J. Chave, in “Personality Development in Children”: “I once overheard three brothers dividing two candy bars. The oldest one gave each of the two younger ones half of a candy bar, and kept a whole bar for himself. When asked why he got more candy, he said he was the smartest. A few minutes later, one of the younger ones asked why he was the smartest, and in reply the oldest said ‘Because I have more candy.’” That’s a fallacious argument, yet in this case, the oldest brother has made an amusing point—he has more candy because he outsmarted his brothers.
When employed by adults, petitio principi is not cute or funny. It will either make you seem like your bulb is dimming or make you come across as evasive. Of course, if evading the issue is your goal, it’s quite useful. That’s why circular reasoning is so popular among politicians.
Next time you watch a politician debating something on TV, you will probably find an appropriate time to accuse him or her of begging the question. Otherwise, it might be best to avoid using that phrase altogether. © 2014 Columbia Daily Tribune. All rights reserved.
Kathy Fox is a longtime Columbia resident, an editor by trade and a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.