Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Begging Your Pardon on Begging the Question

I just wanted to state publicly my whole-hearted endorsement of the “wrong” use of the phrase, begging the question.

Have you heard this phrase? Do you have a self-righteous opinion about it? Then this post may make you angry. Please look away. If you’re a potential new user of the term, read on to see how you can help corrupt it and do your part for the evolving English language.

I started seeing it more in blogs and articles, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. And even though today’s entry says “This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards,” let’s freeze this moment in Wikipedia on begging the question:

In logic, begging the question has traditionally described a type of logical fallacy (also called petitio principii) in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. Begging the question is related to the fallacy known as circular argument, circulus in probando, vicious circle or circular reasoning. The first known definition in the West is by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 BC, in his book Prior Analytics.

In contemporary usage, “begging the question” often refers to an argument where the premises are as questionable as the conclusion.

In popular usage, “begging the question” is often used to mean that a statement invites another obvious question. This usage is stated to be incorrect in The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition; “raises the question” is suggested as a more appropriate alternative.

That first paragraph seems difficult. It uses Latin-sounding words and references Greek philosophers. Some recent vandal may have slipped complete bullshit in there — vicious circle? yeah, right! — and I would have no clue. I’m ignorant about these terms and can’t be bothered to research further. That use of the phrase does nothing for me. I’m never going to employ it in casual, popular conversation.

Neither does the contemporary usage ring my bell. While I might try to pull off, “Dude, your premises are as laughable as your conclusion,” I’m certainly not going to say, “Dude, you’re begging the question.” It sounds like nonsense in that context. (I’m sure to you it sounds perfectly correct. But you’re an effete intellectual snob who has strong opinions about this arcane point of usage.)

Let’s read some more on the “wrong” usage from Wikipedia (the popular choice for today’s knowledge consumer):

Sometimes to beg the question is inaccurately used to mean “to raise the question”, or “the question really ought to be addressed”. An example of such a use would be, “This year’s budget deficit is half a trillion dollars. This begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?” Although proponents of the traditional meaning will criticize this formally incorrect usage, it has nonetheless come into widespread use and in informal contexts may actually be the more common use of the term. The phrases circular reasoning, circular logic, and circular arguments have come to be used in places where logicians would tend to use “beg the question”.

That just works so much better for me, that a statement would be begging for a question to be asked about it. Sure, you might listen to the Oxford elites, and use “raises the question,” but it’s not as colorful and fun to say.

You may be nodding your head in agreement. You may feel moved by this passionate call for action. That’s great! But this isn’t going to be easy. There’s risk involved. Some people will look down at you. Those people who know better. You have to be willing to appear ignorant. (Not a problem for many of us. It gets easier with practice.) People may become angry with you, and possibly turn violent. They may throw rotten fruits and vegetables at you.

But know that our fight is right. In the passage above, Wikipedia points out there is already vast public support for our position. Today the informal contexts, tomorrow the teacher’s lounge! The English language is always evolving. We’re just helping with natural selection for a superior modification. I may have objections about many of the mutations that spread, such as the use of “utilization” instead of “use,” and I resent the degradation of the word “literally” to become a generic intensifier as much as you do, but in this I know we’re doing the right thing. This is a beneficial change, like the opposable thumb. Maybe even better than opposable thumbs.

And though we may be reviled and despised for our part in ruining the English language, and may never be accepted and appreciated by polite, educated society, we will create a better world for our descendants one hundred or more years from now, so that they may never know the stigma of “using it wrong,” and instead may have the joy of complaining about how beg is starting to mean stifle, and that stifling the question is the exact opposite of the original meaning of the phrase, and…

And on that note, let’s stifle this post, Edith.


10 December 2008

Ha! Josh Marshall begs a question and is not surprisingly heckled about it.

He responds: “Please no emails telling me this is the incorrect use of the phrase ‘beg the question’, though I know you’re right. I’ve decided that this misuse is too widespread, too serviceable and too lacking in an alternative not to simply persist in using it.”

I also caught Jon Stewart begging a question on The Daily Show last night.

This movement can’t be stopped!