The Grammarphobia Blog

“Begging the question”

Q: My biggest pet peeve with language is the use of the phrase “beg the question.” When I hear it used on talk shows of a political nature it goes like this: “That statement he just made begs the question….” My understanding is that “begs the question” means “to answer a direct question with another question.”

A: The much-abused expression “begging the question” comes up now and then on WNYC, and we’ve talked about it two or three times that I can recall. Almost no one uses the phrase in its traditionally accepted meaning.

What it DOESN’T mean is raising, avoiding, prompting, mooting, or inspiring the question. And it also doesn’t mean countering with another, different question in an ironic way.

What it DOES mean is engaging in a logical fallacy, namely, basing your argument on an assumption that itself is in need of proof. The example Bryan A. Garner gives in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” is a good illustration: “Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life.”

Hope this helps. Personally, I think the expression has been ruined by misuse and now doesn’t mean much of anything. Too bad.