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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.”
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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When fish are in schools, they sometimes take debate.
A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months.
When the smog lifts in Los Angeles, UCLA.
The batteries were given out free of charge.
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