Can’t we just “raise” the question?

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Frederick Fuller is dismayed by the wide-spread misuse of the expression “to beg the question.”

Beg the question followed by a question, as if a bit of information demanded a question, as in “The high price of eggs begs the question: are we paying chickens too much to lay eggs?”Beg the question is a logical fallacy. So what’s a writer to do?

The good news is that this misuse of “beg” to mean “raise” is the subject of a great many online discussions explaining what to beg the question “really” means.

The bad news is that a great many writers don’t seem to be aware that they are using it incorrectly and it has become very widespread. Here are some examples:

Lil’ Kim had an X-rated public image until she appeared on DWTS. Which begs the question: Is DWTS the new rehab?

Toyota recalls 1.3M Yaris models, which begs the question: What’s the plural of Yaris?

TV-LINKS Is Back! which begs the question…who is going back!

What we are saying here is that every 2 days a juvenile is arrested and it begs the question, “What is really happening to our parents?”

Lilly Litigation Begs the Question – Should Whistleblower Employees Profit?

…Which Begs the Question: How Many Were Being Treated for Self-Inflicted Lung Cancer?

In each of these examples the expression to beg the question is being used as if it meant “to raise the question.”

It doesn’t mean that.

The expression to beg the question is a term of logic. It refers to the logical fallacy of arguing without evidence.

To beg is to ask someone to give you something for nothing.

To beg the question is to ask someone to accept your conclusions without requiring supporting evidence.

Example of begging the question:

A: Gone With the Wind is the greatest American novel ever written.
B: Why?
A: Because it was made into a movie and everybody knows that great novels are made into movies.

I suspect that the misuse of this expression arises by analogy with such expressions as I beg your pardon and I beg to differ. The feeling may be that it’s somehow classier to “beg a question” than to “raise a question.”

Careful writers, beware.

Philip B. Corbett on “begging the question”
Wikipedia article on “begging the question”

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12 thoughts on “Can’t we just “raise” the question?”

  1. I think of beg, in the context of beggers, people that beg for a living. That is, to beg is to cry, usually loudly or at least blatantly and in an obstructive manner, for something you don’t have.

    My Chambers dictionary says that begging is often repeated. Like nagging.

    Begging pardon, begging for treats – sent begging (without what was asked for, regardless of attempts to purchase or trade for an item). Often beggars return an act of thanks, or imply you get a warm fuzzy for helping a poor soul – or they reward with a dance, a smile, etc. Beg for a job, this happens, too. “Hire me, sir, you won’t be sorry.” Lack of monetary return isn’t the hallmark of begging; it is the asking that beg describes.

    To beg the question isn’t, to me, precisely “raise the question”. And I don’t see the connotation of failing to provide evidence. I see begging the question as an implied but yet unanswered question, a question that had not been, at the moment of writing or stating, clearly and definitively asked.

    Is this the same thing as raising a question without confirming evidence? Not to me. To me the lack of evidence is a natural consequence of not having asked the pertinent question that should have demanded that evidence.

    The examples above using the phrase begging the question all partake of a, perhaps sloppy, technique for introducing a branch in a trail of logic, that is, a change of topic.

    For some reason I believe I encountered this phrase in Roberts Rules of Order – when discussion strays from the context of a motion – a question – before the group. That a point or argument is made – but it doesn’t pertain to the question at hand. A digression of topic.

    The facile “fallacy of logic” definition repeated in many places on the internet, copied into (or from!) the Wikipedia, might or might not be authoritative. But I think this definition is limited to places where the fallacy occurs, and not to use of the phrase “to beg the question.”

    YMMV. I could well be wrong.

  2. In this instance, would it be incorrect to interpret the word ‘beg’ in its broadest sense (i.e. begging is a form of ‘asking’ with underlying tones of desperation)?

    If so, the phrase ‘to beg the question’ could be akin to ‘asking the question’, no?

  3. Also, a fairly common 17th century expression, “to beget the question” (found for example in David Hume, et al.) actually does mean “to raise the question”. This has probably helped to confuse the matter.

  4. This is a great point, and something I had been wondering about. Unfortunately, begging the question has entered the lexicon – and so it is probably valid when writing dialog.

    But this is something to look out for in article writing.

  5. Well, “beg the question” is a translation of the Latin “petitio principii”; a very bad translation, IMO…it uses the word “question” in a non-standard way (“argument” would be better), and the phrase is not otherwise meaningless in English — i.e., the usage you’re saying is wrong is much closer to the natural meaning of the English words than the “correct” meaning, so it’s hardly surprising that people would interpret it that way (though none of the examples you quote use it in a sensible way). “Principii”, translating Aristotle’s “en archei”, means “at the beginning”; a better English translation (and one that doesn’t have any obvious meaning already) would be “beg the beginning” (the Greek actually does include the meaning “beg”, unlike the Latin), though the “circular argument” is more meaningful. I can’t see the point of translating it, though; other terms of art in logic, such as “ad hominem”, “modus ponens”, etc., are used in Latin; why does this one (alone?) need a translation?

  6. The writer is correct, it is a technical term of logic. Using “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” should grate on the ears of anybody who studied basic philosophy the same way that using “evolution” to mean “change” bothers anybody who has studied basic biology.

    The following argument is an example of petitio principii or begs the question:
    1. The Bible is the word of God.
    2. God speaks the truth.
    3. The Bible says God exists.
    4. God exists.

    1-3 don’t offer any evidence for 4 because they already assume 4. The argument begs the question.

  7. Shane,

    I am in a fair way to believing that the phrase, the literal words, when used in a communication, means precisely, “I am going to change the topic slightly.”

    The figure of speech where the construct is described as begging the question, but the phrase isn’t used, is the part that actually begs the question.

  8. Digress. Could it be that Digress is used as the opposite of the phrase – not the grammatical usage,but the phrase, – beg the question?

    That is, I could follow a trail of thought that went off topic from a conversation, then close that digression off with the phrase, “But I digress.”

    Where I might interject a digression into an exposition with the (disingenuous) phrase, “but that begs the question of . . .” and proceed to take the topic in another, divergent, train of thought.

    Use, “I digress” to close off a digression, and “begs the question” to introduce a digression you propose to replace the previous topic.


  9. I disagree with all the comments above which I read (tho I didn’t read them all for lack of time and patience).
    When I was studying logic in high school I was introduced to the concept of begging the question, and it meant as follows:

    When you have a question,e.g. in science, you might undertake an investigation and then come to a conclusion.
    To beg the question is to simply assert, or arrive at the conclusion, without undertaking any or adequate investigation.

    So instead of being justified in your conclusion and demanding agreement, you are simply begging for agreement.

    Anyone is entitled to put whatever meaning they like to a set of words, but how well they will be understood is another matter.
    Today you’re more likely to be understood if you make up your own meaning than if you adhere to one widely accepted in days of yore, which is when I went to school.

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