Begging the Question



The phrase beg the question has been around for centuries. But now everyone seems to be saying it, maybe because it sounds smart. It’s a shame that no one bothers to look it up.

Here are three of the countless examples of beg the question one can find online: “It begs the question of who Fluke really is.” “Exports’ clout begs the question: Was NAFTA good or bad?” “He did stand-up comedy once, which begs the question, What can’t this guy do?”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. In each case, the writer should have said “raises the question” or “suggests the question” or “demands the question.”

Until beg the question became a fad phrase, most people who weren’t scholars or intellectuals lived long, fruitful lives with no occasion to use it. “To beg the question” is a somewhat quirky translation of the Latin term petitio principii, or “laying claim to a principle.” It is a technical term for reaching unwarranted conclusions, often through the folly of circular reasoning.

A succinct definition of beg the question is found in H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself.” Fowler offers this example: “Capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase.” There are two unproven assertions in that sentence, and yet the second one is supposed to prove the first.

Here’s another kind of question-begging: “Good grammar matters because proper speech or writing makes a difference.” Any thesaurus will list proper as a synonym for good and make a difference as synonymous with the verb matter. And grammar is the study of speech and writing. So in this instance of begging the question, the “proof” is merely the premise restated in different words. That’s like saying, “Good grammar matters because I just said so.”

Those who are tempted to class up their articles or conversations with beg the question should probably reconsider, unless they’re discussing a logical fallacy. Otherwise, make it “raise the question.”

Posted on Monday, December 1, 2014, at 7:31 pm

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4 Comments on Begging the Question

4 responses to “Begging the Question”

  1. Bill R. says:

    One of the things I most enjoy about the newsletter is that it is so much more than grammar. Effective writing is much more than grammar.
    Your articles stimulate writers to think before and as they write. Unless one thinks before writing, the grammar can be perfect yet the logic is completely missing. The result is writing that is a waste of time, or worse, for the reader.

  2. Jeannie H. says:

    “The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself.”

    What an awful sentence. I have improved it: The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that needs to be proved as much as the conclusion itself.

    There, that’s better.

  3. David Jackson says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! Like you, I have noticed an increase in the use of this term in recent times, and I was beginning to think I didn’t understand the meaning of it. For example, in a recent televised news interview, the interviewee used the term repeatedly, and all the time, I was thinking he should have been saying “raises the question”. After reading your blog, I now know that he was, indeed, incorrect in using it, and I also agree with you that he was probably using it to make himself sound smarter. In addition, I think he was assuming his audience didn’t know how to use it either. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever used the term. As you correctly pointed out, it is very technical. Thanks again.

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