Q: I notice with distressing regularity the misuse and cheapening of words and phrases. One expression that comes to mind is “beg the question.”
A: Like it or not, “beg the question” has more meanings in modern English than the one it started out with.
Essentially, a 16th-century technical phrase with a very narrow definition became so widely used in general English that its original meaning was left behind. It now has so many meanings that it’s best avoided except in a treatise on logic.
Back in 1581, when “beg the question” was first recorded, it had a specific meaning in philosophy. It described a fallacy in logic that consists more or less of arguing in a circle—that is, basing an argument on premises that are unproven, or that simply restate the argument.
To illustrate, here’s an argument that “begs the question”: “My son is innocent because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime.”
The argument to be proved is “My son is innocent,” but the premises on which it’s based—“because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime”—also need to be proved; they merely state the argument in different terms. The premises of an argument should be indisputable, like “because he was in Toronto at the time, and someone else’s fingerprints are on the weapon.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the philosophical sense of “beg the question” as “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”
The earliest known use, cited by the OED and other references, is from an account of the 1581 interrogation of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who refused to accept Anglican doctrine despite being tortured on the rack:
“I say this is still to begge the question” (from a comment by an Anglican interrogator in A True Report of the Disputation or Rather Priuate Conference Had in the Tower of London, with Ed. Campion Iesuite). Campion, convicted of treason, was drawn and quartered.
Although the original sense of the expression is still alive, linguists and lexicographers say that it’s no longer the predominant meaning and hasn’t been since the mid-18th century.
Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary, labels the original meaning “formal,” and says on its website that the expression “is only very rarely used this way.”
Today, nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, both American and British, offer additional definitions like these: “raise a question or point that has not been dealt with”; “invite an obvious question”; “avoid the question”; “evade the issue”; “ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled”; “avoid giving a direct answer by posing another question.”
All those differing uses of “beg the question”—especially the first two—are treated as standard English today and are found in even the most elevated writing and speech. Unless the expression is found in context, there’s no way to tell what it means.
So what happened to the original “beg the question”? You might say that it carried the seeds of its own destruction, because it didn’t use either “beg” or “question” in its ordinary meaning. The linguist Mark Liberman, writing on the Language Log, has called its history “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” Here’s the story.
The fallacy in logic here was first identified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He referred to it in several different works, calling it τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν, ancient Greek for “asking at the beginning” and “assuming the initial thing.” In other words, using premises that assume at the outset the truth of what you’re trying to prove.
Many centuries later, in the 1100s, the Greek term was translated into medieval Latin as petitio principii, “a postulate (or a postulating) at the beginning.”
The Latin version began appearing in British manuscripts written in Latin in the 1300s, the OED says. And since the 1530s petitio principii has regularly appeared, often italicized, in English writing about philosophy and logic, where it’s so familiar that it’s sometimes called petitio for short.
A mid-16th-century writer defined it this way in a treatise on the mass: “Petitio principii, that is when a ma[n] wyl proue [prove] a thynge to be true, by the same thinge, or wyth an other, that is as doubtfull as that is, which is called into questio[n].” From A New Dialogue Wherin Is Conteyned the Examinatio[n] of the Messe (1548), by William Turner.
In the late 1500s, petitio principii was translated into English for wider audiences, people who weren’t educated at the elite universities and didn’t know Latin. Unfortunately, it was awkwardly rendered as “beg the question”—a puzzling usage that was doomed to confuse ordinary readers and was worse than no translation at all.
In the first place, “beg” was inappropriate. The classical Latin petitio might indeed have been translated as a begging or a pleading. But in medieval Latin, the noun as used in logic meant “a postulate” or “a postulating”—that is, something taken for granted as a basis for reasoning.
In the second place, “question” was inappropriate. As used in logic, the Latin principii meant at the beginning or starting point (of an argument). It’s true that one meaning of “question” is something being argued, but that’s not what “question” means to most people.
Since the Middle Ages, “question” has more commonly meant a request for information, like a sentence ending with a question mark, not a statement being defended in an argument.
The linguist Carol Lynn Moder, who has written extensively on the history and development of “beg the question,” has shown that subtle shifts in the meaning of the phrase began to set in at the very beginning.
Even when using “beg the question” in its Aristotelian sense, Moder writes, 16th-century writers were shifting the sense of “beg” away from its postulating meaning: “Authors in this period regularly invoked the common ‘requesting alms’ meaning of beg to suggest the unseemly characteristics of those committing this fallacy.”
She cites these examples from 1579-80, even before “beg the question” became the usual form of the expression: “Alas, this is such a poore begginge of that in question” … “a shamefull petition or begging of that which is in question” … “a shamefull begging of that which is questioned.”
The “beg the question” wording, which first appeared in writing in 1581, had become the usual form of the expression by the mid-17th century, Moder says. And well into the 18th century, the expression was regularly used it in its narrow, logical sense—but this was soon to change.
In the mid-18th century, she writes, the expression began “to move out of its Aristotelian niche, appearing more widely in magazines, plays, travel writing and memoirs in contexts less clearly concerning logical disputations.”
Furthermore, Moder says, literacy spread, and as printed materials became more widely available the expression was read and interpreted by readers unfamiliar with formal logic.
From the mid-18th century onward, she adds, “beg the question” began acquiring meanings that had little or nothing to do with that Aristotelian fallacy.
This could have been predicted. If the parts of a formulaic expression don’t make sense together—like “beg” and “question”—people will find a sensible meaning for themselves. As far as we can tell, the expression now usually means to “raise a question that begs to be answered”—and it’s then followed by an actual question.
(Moder’s paper “Begging the Question: Chunking, Compositionality and Language Change” was first published in 2016 and later as a chapter in Formulaicity and Creativity in Language and Literature, 2018, edited by Ian MacKenzie and Martin A. Kayman.)
Incidentally, we were surprised to find that despite the wider definitions in standard dictionaries, the OED’s sole definition of “beg the question” is that original one: “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”
The OED is behind the curve here. It has no citations later than 1870, a century and a half ago, and cites no examples of the wider uses that have existed from the mid-1600s onward.
The dictionary’s earliest citation, as we mentioned above, is the one from 1581. And this is the latest: “The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question” (A Treatise on Logic, 1870, by Francis Bowen). We can only assume that the OED will eventually record the many other uses of the expression.
So how are modern speakers and writers supposed to use “beg the question”? Our advice is don’t; use either “raise the question” or “evade the issue,” depending on what you mean. As Mark Liberman says in that Language Log post:
“If you use the phrase to mean ‘raise the question,’ some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ ‘misuse,’ you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean ‘assume the conclusion,’ almost no one will understand you.
“My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself … and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.”