English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Begging the question”

[Note: An updated and expanded post on “beg the question” appeared on Nov. 29, 2021.]

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 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 was not originally intended to mean is raising, avoiding, prompting, mooting, or inspiring the question. And it also wasn’t intended to mean countering with another, different question in an ironic way.

What it does mean in the traditional sense 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. In my opinion, the expression is now so commonly used in so many different ways that today it doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s best avoided.