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quality posts: 14 Private Messages WootBot

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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.

jawlz


quality posts: 12 Private Messages jawlz

Perhaps I am just being cynical, but I don't know that very many people remember Diogenes these days.

proteus


quality posts: 0 Private Messages proteus
jawlz wrote:Perhaps I am just being cynical, but I don't know that very many people remember Diogenes these days.



I do. He still owes me money.

drewski3420


quality posts: 0 Private Messages drewski3420
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...


Google n-gram says since the end of WWII.

erasure101


quality posts: 4 Private Messages erasure101
jawlz wrote:Perhaps I am just being cynical, but I don't know that very many people remember Diogenes these days.



i see what you did there.

i always preferred the name diogenes of sinope rather than diogenes the cynic.

pioneercynthia


quality posts: 0 Private Messages pioneercynthia

I've been seeing this for a while now; glad you've tackled it.

Of course, there are many expressions that are misused these days, not to mention more egregious flaws such as the difference between "your" and "you're." I think the likelihood of things improving is about as high as Diogenes finding the honest Athenian.

davep1


quality posts: 4 Private Messages davep1

Think of it this way, you are begging someone to believe the answer to a question without any argument beyond "Pleeeeeease".

jmkiii


quality posts: 0 Private Messages jmkiii

I put this on par with people calling salt sodium. It's really not a big deal.

aggiecoal


quality posts: 0 Private Messages aggiecoal

Am I the only one that finds it ironic a grammatical error was made in this post?

"quibbling over the two is an exclusively a 20th-century (and American) phenomenon"

nathanmiller


quality posts: 0 Private Messages nathanmiller

This is pretty similar to other prescriptive grammar, in my opinion. "Begs the question" might not originally have meant "brings up the question" but it certainly does now.

Because that's how the vast majority, and really a very significant majority, use it.

Only so much to brag about... wooted:

tizzed


quality posts: 0 Private Messages tizzed

I think Dinosaur Comics said it best...

http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=693

mick66


quality posts: 5 Private Messages mick66

I believe his conclusion begs the question.

devnbave


quality posts: 1 Private Messages devnbave

I actually use the language of rhetorical argumentation in my work, so in that realm, I agree that the meanings of terms should not shift with popular whims. In everyday conversation, though, I rank this somewhere next to the distinction between "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less."

mick66


quality posts: 5 Private Messages mick66
nathanmiller wrote:This is pretty similar to other prescriptive grammar, in my opinion. "Begs the question" might not originally have meant "brings up the question" but it certainly does now.

Because that's how the vast majority, and really a very significant majority, use it.



I agree. The words are not being redefined and they fit the use.

mmurynec


quality posts: 0 Private Messages mmurynec
mick66 wrote:I agree. The words are not being redefined and they fit the use.



That approach (majority is always right) is precisely how and why our culture slumps towards ignorance. I hear my mom saying "If everyone were jumping off a bridge would you?"

sunnyx0r


quality posts: 9 Private Messages sunnyx0r
devnbave wrote:I actually use the language of rhetorical argumentation in my work, so in that realm, I agree that the meanings of terms should not shift with popular whims. In everyday conversation, though, I rank this somewhere next to the distinction between "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less."



The difference between "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less" is that one makes actual sense.

Shinespark


quality posts: 32 Private Messages Shinespark
mmurynec wrote:That approach (majority is always right) is precisely how and why our culture slumps towards ignorance. I hear my mom saying "If everyone were jumping off a bridge would you?"


You shouldn't be using the word "mom," it's a debasement of the perfectly fine word "mother."

The irony is humorous in mother using another logical fallacy to combat language relating to a logical fallacy.

alanhwoot


quality posts: 38 Private Messages alanhwoot

"Begging the question" is actually not a very good translation from Latin, at least to 21st century American English. "Assumes the conclusion" is better, and hey, actually lets people know what it means. Aren't you supposed to do that when translating?

The phrase got hooked into English centuries ago, hence the archaic usage of "beg".

It might as well be "mome raths outgrabe" for all the meaning the individual words have any more. It's effectively a single word begsthequestion, and you either know what it is or not.

"Emphatically implores the interrogatory statement" aka "begs the question", on the other hand, is a useful phrase that actually means what it says. There's a question begging to be asked.

So logicians, give up ye olde translation. Either use the Latin or a good English translation.

mick66


quality posts: 5 Private Messages mick66
mmurynec wrote:That approach (majority is always right) is precisely how and why our culture slumps towards ignorance. I hear my mom saying "If everyone were jumping off a bridge would you?"



Like it or not language has been evolving for as long as it has existed. Why should it stop for the phrase in question?

bernfish


quality posts: 0 Private Messages bernfish
jmkiii wrote:I put this on par with people calling salt sodium. It's really not a big deal.



Best way to check is to take a big taste of salt then a big taste of sodium then head to the ER. Names ARE important.

SilkenDrum


quality posts: 0 Private Messages SilkenDrum

In complaining that people use "begs the question" incorrectly, you have used "problematic" incorrectly.

As to language evolving, I hate when I don't know when someone is using the old meaning of a word or phrase, or the new one. I've lost a lot of my vocabulary to that, a lot of words I can no longer use since I don't how my audience will interpret it. For example, I can't say, "John's attendance at my dinner party is problematic", because I'm afraid half my audience might interpret it as "I don't want John there, he's a problem", which is not at all what problematic means.

sisyphushaditeasy


quality posts: 0 Private Messages sisyphushaditeasy
pioneercynthia wrote:I've been seeing this for a while now; glad you've tackled it.

Of course, there are many expressions that are misused these days, not to mention more egregious flaws such as the difference between "your" and "you're." I think the likelihood of things improving is about as high as Diogenes finding the honest Athenian.



The Honest Athenians was the name of my band in college

ddispensa


quality posts: 1 Private Messages ddispensa
bernfish wrote:Best way to check is to take a big taste of salt then a big taste of sodium then head to the ER. Names ARE important.


Obviously you mean "table salt" since sodium chromate is also toxic. Names are important, LOL