Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Begging the question

with 22 comments

Begging

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 about the government’s plans to introduce financial management lessons in schools, a commentator said:The question is begged — what will they be taught? Two questions immediately came into my mind:Is that the correct use of the phrase ‘the question is begged’?

And if it is, isn’t there a less pompous way of saying the same thing?

So, I’ve checked it out.

Apparently, the original meaning of ‘beg the question’ means to assume that something is true, even though it hasn’t yet been proved. For example:

By spending time and money going to the conference in Italy we are begging the question of its importance to us.

Some English language intelligentsia believe this should remain its only meaning. However, it is now widely accepted that ‘begging the question’ can also mean to ‘invite an obvious question’ — which is how the speaker on Radio 4 used the phrase.

There is a clearer and less pompous alternative:

The obvious question is: what will they be taught?

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22 Responses

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  1. I see it misused most to mean “evade the question,” when “evade the question” would work perfectly well! Maybe the phrase is so ill-defined or skunked that we should stop using it.

    Michael Farrell

    07/01/2010 at 6:36 am

    • Hi, Michael — that’s interesting. Now you mention it, I think I’ve seen/heard it used like that as well. I agree that the phrase is better left alone.

      Deborah

      07/01/2010 at 9:00 am

  2. Deborah,
    I’m thrilled to find this site and was glad to see the posts on the supposed generic “man” as well as how to address people w. a disability (when this is necessary). However, I was most happy to see the post on “begging the question” — grrrr. As is so in many cases, people should just say what they mean instead of trying to be fancy; that is, “[whatever it is] raises the question, …”
    This is like when people use “I” (or worse, “myself”) when what they mean to write is “me” or my current pet peeve, “comprised” instead of “composed.”
    So many errors, so little time 🙂

    Maggie Manning

    10/01/2010 at 6:18 pm

    • Hello, Maggie — thanks so much! I have many peeves and you sound like a woman after my own heart. Thanks again — I hope you enjoy future posts.

      Deborah

      10/01/2010 at 6:51 pm

  3. What’s wrong with “begging the question”? “Evading the question” is is an in-your-face confrontational challenge, whereas “begging the question” does allow for ignorance or stupidity as opposed to malice on the part of the accused.

    Dai

    10/03/2010 at 4:53 pm

  4. Here’s more interesting stuff on ‘begging the question’ (and other grammatical errors) from Guy Keleny in The Independent:

    “Begging the question” is one of the permanent fixtures of pedantry. We are forever pointing out that very few people know what “beg the question” means. When people use it they invariably mean “raise the question”.

    Does it matter? In the eternal scheme of the English language, not much. But whenever we misuse “beg the question” we annoy that minority of readers who know what it really means. Why annoy any section of your readership?

    And now the great “beg the question” horror has just got worse. This is from an article on Wednesday about cyber attacks on the internet: “The assaults only targeted two websites and the damage was quickly rectified. But it begged a series of frightening hypotheticals.”

    Heavens! As if begging questions were not bad enough, now we are begging hypotheticals.

    Alert pedants will have noticed at least three further things wrong with that passage. First, the number agreement is all over the place, with “assaults” becoming “it”. Next, “only” is misplaced. And finally, we can do without the empty verbiage “a series of”. And I suppose a hyper-pedant might object that damage cannot be rectified – put right – because it is not wrong. So, how about this? – “The assaults targeted only two websites and the damage was quickly repaired. But they raised frightening questions.”

    Deborah

    21/08/2010 at 10:07 am

  5. “Does it matter? In the eternal scheme of the English language, not much.”

    The argument of the literary slob, and Sarah Palin – it doesn’t matter because language evolves anyway.

    But it does matter, because this isn’t evolution, it it’s plain, flat-out, wrong, and every time an error like this goes unchallenged it becomes more deeply entrenched.

    The battle is probably lost for begging the question, but that is almost entirely the fault of people with the lax attitude of Keleny (and, quite likely, the education system). Nobody who makes their living with words should shrug their shoulders dismissively, when crimes against the language are committed.

    There is nothing wrong with being a pedant – as long as you’re right – because the linguistic Barbarians are at the gates.

    Ron

    21/08/2010 at 2:20 pm

    • Hi, Ron — I think it’s quite unusual for Keleny to make a comment like that. I find that he’s normally very strict when it comes to the English language. Note his objection to the position of ‘only’ and the inclusion of ‘a series of’. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he’s always interesting to read. Thanks, Ron.

      Deborah

      21/08/2010 at 5:56 pm

  6. Hmm… Interesting article once you get past this bit. Must keep an eye on the Indie.

    I had a very strong feeling of deja vu typing the last comment – don’t know whether it’s from my own blog or if I’ve posted something very similar here. It’s not in this thread, at least (I did check…)

    By the way have you covered misuse of the ellipsis? It seems to have taken on a life of its own, especially in CiF, and the length is now apparently totally random and mostly pointless.

    Ron

    22/08/2010 at 5:17 pm

    • Hi, Ron — Yes, I think I prefer Keleny’s approach to corrections to that of the Guardian’s — he’s more discursive. By ellipsis you mean loads of dots……………? Or the actual omission of words? I’ve seen a few people on the interweb complaining about the former.

      Deborah

      23/08/2010 at 10:41 am

  7. It’s a term I try and avoid in conversation. I’m always aware that it has a specific philosophical usage, but I can never remember precisely what that usage is.

    awindram

    22/08/2010 at 9:07 pm

    • Hi, there — yes, definitely best avoided, I think; there’s always a clearer and more straightforward alternative to use. I’d bet my last jar of Old English that most people who use the term ‘begging the question’, or some variation of it, don’t really know what it means.

      Deborah

      22/08/2010 at 9:25 pm

  8. Deborah, what have you done to me?

    Reading an earlier Keleny, I came across thia, about J P Donleavy:-

    “Only two paragraphs farther down came this: “His trademark beard now completely white, and his eyes shaded by brown-tinted spectacles …”

    We should be grateful that Donleavy has not been wearing glasses all his life, or they would no doubt be a trademark as well.”

    Thing is, Donleavy hasn’t had a beard all his life, either – not unless he had a very strange first 15 or so years.

    So – quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Ron

    23/08/2010 at 10:00 am

    • Hi, Ron — I think I read that piece about trademarks, but your point about Donleavy not having had a beard all his life did not occur to me! Yes, your final question is always a good one in relation to those who set themselves up to correct others. Inviting trouble, really! At least Keleny, as far as I can make out, isn’t unpleasantly arrogant as are so many who decide they need to set the grammatical world to rights.

      Deborah

      23/08/2010 at 10:13 am

  9. John Rentoul, who either shares the post with, or stands in for, Keleny, is just plain picky, singling out hacks because he just doesn’t like the form of words, not because they’re actually wrong, or even just clunky.

    As with Donleavy, though, Rentoul is often wrong.

    Ron

    23/08/2010 at 11:33 am

  10. And the “all his/her life” claim can only be made once a person is dead.

    Ron

    23/08/2010 at 11:34 am

    • Hi, Ron – I’m not familiar with Rentoul; I’ll have to check him out.

      I suppose ‘all his/her life’ could include the unspoken/presumed ‘so far’?

      Deborah

      23/08/2010 at 4:15 pm

      • When asked – rarely, it’s true, but it happens – if I’ve been disabled all my life, I tend to reply “Not yet!”

        Not always – but if it’s just someone being nosey, then yes.

        Ron

        23/08/2010 at 4:31 pm

        • Bet that prompts some quizzical looks (until the penny drops)!

          Deborah

          23/08/2010 at 6:48 pm

          • Taxi driver (on seeing my crutch): Had an accident, then?

            Me: No.

            TD: Are you carrying it as a weapon?

            Me: Oh yes . . .

            TD: silence

            Ron

            23/08/2010 at 7:21 pm

  11. More on ‘begging the question’from Guy Keleny in The Independent:

    Tuesday’s Trending page reported that Scarlett Johansson is to act the part of Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – “which beggars the question: is there a more intimidating role to take on than that of another celebrated actor?”.

    There are two layers of error here. First, the writer has confused “beggar belief” with “beg the question”. So, which ought it to be? In fact, neither.

    First, the story is obviously nothing to do with beggaring belief. The use of “beggar” as a verb dates back to the 16th century. To beggar someone is to reduce them to the status of a beggar, by exhausting their resources. Hence, the slightly odd, but perfectly respectable expression “beggar belief”. An idea “beggars belief” if it is so unlikely or outlandish that it exhausts our capacity to believe it.

    So, what about “beg the question”? This is probably the most widely misused expression in the language. I don’t propose to explain what it means. People with degrees in philosophy have no trouble understanding it. The rest of us find it virtually ungraspable. There are only two things you need to know about “beg the question”. The first is that it is not the same as “raise the question” – which is the expression the writer of the Johansson item should have used. The second is this: don’t write “beg the question” – ever.

    Deborah

    10/03/2012 at 4:36 pm


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