The Debunker: Does "Beg The Question" Mean "Raise The Question"?

by Ken Jennings

If you had a gun to your head, could you tell me the difference between “farther” or “further,” or spell “minuscule” correctly? In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4!) we’ll be debunking dialectical deceit all month on Woot. Was your ninth-grade English teacher’s classroom a house of lies? Find out from 74-time Jeopardy! champion (and self-proclaimed grammar Nazi) Ken Jennings.

Language Myth #3: “Begging the Question” Means “Raising the Question.”

Today, when you see the phrase begs the question used, even in journalism or academic writing, if nearly always means “invites the question.” “The band Chumbawamba broke up last year, which begs the question: what had Chumbawamba been doing since 1997?” The problem is, in terms of logic and rhetoric, begging the question has a very specific meaning. And it’s not that.

Begging the question is a literal translation of the Latin petitio principii, a logical fallacy dating back to Aristotle. It’s a form of circular reasoning wherein the speaker uses the desired conclusion as an argument for that conclusion, and goes on from there. “Chumbawamba was the best band of the late ‘90s because all other bands weren’t as good.” This sentence is not only completely unfair to Smash Mouth but logically faulty: it begs the question. Granted, that’s a less intuitive meaning for begs the question than “suggests the question,” which is undoubtedly why the phrase is now so often misused. This confusion seems to be fairly new. Merriam-Websters’s usage dictionary, last updated during the 1990s, has a whole entry on begs the question, but it’s all about which specific types of logical sidestepping might qualify. The idea that the phrase might be used to mean simply “raises the question” doesn’t seem to have occurred to the editors.

Words and phrases shift meanings all the time, of course, and lots of the things you think you know about such distinctions are completely bogus. For example, pedants often insist that anxious cannot be used to mean eager but only nervous, when in fact eager has been an attested meaning of anxious for centuries, and quibbling over the two is an exclusively a 20th-century (and American) phenomenon. But the sad decline of beg the question is much more recent and problematic issue. Since beg the question is already a term of art in the field of logical argument, you run the risk of sounding clueless when you redefine it in the course of making a logical argument. More to the point, if you want to say “raise the question,” why not use the much simpler and more intuitive phrase “raise the question”? No need to (mis)use a more oblique phrase just to seem erudite.

Quick Quiz: Speaking of ancient Greeks begging things: what Greek beggar/philosopher is now mostly remembered for sleeping in a big tub in the marketplace and searching for an honest man?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Image taken from begthequestion.info, a site dedicated to correcting this particular misusage.