Monday, July 29, 2013

Begging the question - why all the fuss?

There are some words and expressions that over time, take on new meanings, either in addition to their old meanings, or more or less replacing their old meanings altogether. An example of the first is awesome, which now has a rather different meaning to the one I was brought up with, but still coexists with the old meaning. While gay is an example of the latter, where the current meaning has pretty well replaced its old meaning of "happy, jolly".

Decimate / decimation

Neither of these two new uses seem to have raised many hackles, but that can't be said for others. One such is decimate. Decimation was a practice in the Roman army, where one in ten soldiers would face execution as a collective punishment. This custom largely fell out of use, and the verb decimate (and its noun decimation) took on a new meaning, that of wholesale destruction. There are some purists, however, who insist that decimate should still be reserved for the killing of one person in ten, even though there's not a lot of call for such a use these days. I confess to having been a decimate snob myself at one time, but soon saw the error of my ways.

Begging the question

Another such expression whose '(mis)'use seems to annoy some people is 'begging the question'. I imagine most of us first come across this with the meaning of "leading to the question" or "raising the question", as in something like:
The government's plan to increase the school leaving age begs the question of where the extra money is going to come from.
And in fact this was the only meaning I knew till I started reading more widely about English. It turns out, however, that begging the question has a much older and rather different meaning to the one I've been used to for much of my life. It was originally applied to a logical fallacy, known in Latin as petitio principii, "assuming the initial point", where the conclusion is based on an idea which hasn't itself been proved. Take this statement, for example:
Peter went to an expensive private school, so he's obviously better educated than Paul, who went to the local comprehensive.
To me this is begging the question in the logical fallacy meaning. The speaker is implying that an expensive private education is better per se than that at a state school, and so anybody who goes to private school is bound to be better educated than somebody who goes to state school. This is open to argument, at least; five out of the top ten English schools ranked by 2012 A-level results, and eight out of the ranked by GCSE exam results, were state-funded, not private.
At least that's how I understand it, although the precise nature of the logical fallacy isn't so important for the purposes of this post (there are links at the end to places where you can get much more information on its meaning - I especially recommend you have a look at the explanation at The Phrase Finder, which is both comprehensive and clear).
The important thing is that we have two completely different meanings, the newer (leading to the question) meaning having much wider currency than the (logical fallacy) original, which is known to relatively few people.
A second point is that you would never be able to work out the original (logical fallacy) meaning from the words alone: you really have to learn this one. The newer (leading to the question) meaning, on the other hand, is (ironically) quite a logical deduction from the words beg and question.

The naysayers

Here are a few quotes from critics of the 'leading to the question' meaning.
Do YOU know how to use the phrase "begging the question"? No? That's okay; most people don't. It is commonly misused, as people typically confuse it with "raising the question." But that's simply incorrect. - Zoë Triska at Huffington Post
Tim - it is not that difficult to explain. "Begging the question" refers to the logical fallacy of assuming in the proof that which was to be proven. So for instance "God exists because it says so in the bible which is the infallible word of God" would be to beg the question. The wrong usage is in the sense of requiring the question to be asked. - Letter to BBC Magazine
To beg the question does not mean "to raise the question." (e.g. "It begs the question, why is he so dumb?") This is a common error of usage made by those who mistake the word "question" in the phrase to refer to a literal question. Sadly, the error has grown more and more common with time, such that even journalists, advertisers, and major mass media entities have fallen prey to "BTQ Abuse." - Beg the Question - Get it right
Begs the question is one of those strange expressions that is now in common usage by people who have no idea what it really means. People usually employ it to mean raise the question. In fact it means nothing of the sort. It means to avoid answering the question by waffling and tautology. Yes, it's an obscure and obsolete meaning of the word beg, but that's what it means. If you mean "raises the question" then say that. - Grammar Police Blotter
As for that last one, his own definition is not exactly the standard logical fallacy one, but we'll see why a bit later.
I have two main problems with the naysayer approach. Firstly, some of them can get quite snobby about it, and treat the rest of us as though we are ignorant. This is from a letter to the Guardian:
If Rebecca Front really wants to describe herself as a writer she needs to be aware of the correct use of begging the question.
(Ms Front, one of Britain's foremost and most intelligent comedy actresses, a BAFTA winner and Oxford graduate, had written in an article: "And yes, I realise that begs the question: why am I sitting here with sciatica writing about it then.")
Secondly, the genie has been out of the bottle for over a quarter of century now. To insist that we go back to only using 'raise the question' or 'pose the question' in this context is just crying in the wind and denying human nature. People evidently like 'beg the question' in this meaning, perhaps because it sounds stronger than the other possibilities, and it's here to stay. That's how language works.
Saying it is 'a misuse' or 'wrong' or 'incorrect' makes as much sense as me saying that the contemporary use of awesome (where no awe whatsoever is involved) is 'a misuse' or 'wrong' or 'incorrect', because it's not what I was brought up with and because I wouldn't personally use it that way. Which would be nonsense.

What I want to show

My aim in this post is to show that:
  • the 'lead to/raise the question' meaning is by far the more common and could now well be said to be the 'standard' meaning of the expression.The older (logical fallacy) meaning is really limited to specialist use in the fields of philosophy and logic, and it is actually very difficult to find any examples of this use outside discussions on language.
  • the use of the expression in the newer (lead to/raise the question) sense need have no negative effect on its use in the original (logical fallacy) sense, as the two are almost always used in different types of construction, which I will look at a bit later.
  • there is a third meaning, that of evading the issue, that is only mentioned in a few dictionaries. This is older than the 'lead to/raise the question' meaning and is largely ignored by the naysayers, although it could much more easily confused with the original meaning than the one the purists complain about.

A bit more about avoiding or evading the issue.

Mark Israel, at the excellent alt.usage.english website, points out that many people use "to beg the question" in "one of two looser senses":
... one of two looser senses. The first of these, "to evade the question, to duck the issue", is attested since 1860 (WDEU). The second, "to invite the obvious question, (with an inanimate subject) to raise the question", is now the most commonly heard use of the phrase, although we have found no mention of it prior to The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition (1983), and it is not yet in most dictionaries.
Although the second meaning does seem to be in most dictionaries nowadays, see above.
As far as I can see, it is this older looser meaning, to evade or avoid the issue, that the writer at Grammar Police Blotter is talking about. So we have one group of critics saying that the logical fallacy version is the only correct one, and a smaller group saying that the 'evade the issue' is the only correct one, but they're agreed: evrybody else (the vast majority of educated speakers) are wrong.

What the dictionaries say.

All of the six British online dictionaries I've checked give the two meanings we've been talking about without comment. All but one, Collins, put the "lead to/raise the question" meaning first, not without reason, as this is by far the most common use.
American dictionaries are more circumspect. While Merriam-Webster lists the two standard meanings without comment, McGraw Hill, quoted at the Free Dictionary, says the "lead to/raise the question" meaning is "incorrect but is currently in widespread use" and Wiktionary calls it "proscribed". (apparently based on the Random House Dictionary), doesn't mention it at all in their main entry or in a quote from the American Heritage Dictionary New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, but a more careful look shows a quote from the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms - 'In the 1990s, however, people sometimes used the phrase as a synonym of "ask the question" (as in The article begs the question: "What are we afraid of?" )'.
Collins is almost alone in listing a third meaning - to evade the issue, the one referred to in that quote from Grammar Police Blotter, which we just looked at.

Usage Guides

Strangely enough, Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage doesn't mention the 'lead to/raise the question' meaning at all, only the logical fallacy and evading the issue, which they describe as 'fully established as standard'.
In the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, R.W.Burchfield refers to strict use (the logical fallacy) and general use, which he says is 'more likely to be "to evade a difficulty" or "to refrain from giving a straightforward answer"'. And he gives three examples:
  • Let's ... beg the question of just who was in love with whom. (H.Jacobson)
  • He simply begged the question by saying that the decisions he disapproved invented new rights. (NY Rev Bks, 1987)
  • John Major's vision of Europe seems to me entirely correct. But it begs the question: why did the prime minister all but sacrifice his noffice ratifying when ratifying the Maatrich Treaty when ... (The Economist)
While the first two are obviously about avoiding or evading the issue, the last one seems to me to be really getting into the territory of 'lead to/raise the question'. Perhaps we can see here a hint as to how one usage developed from another.

A look at the media

The aim here is to look at how the expression is used in a few of the main players in the news media, mainly British. For each one, I have done a Google site search, and taken the first ten instances of 'beg the question', apart from those dealing with the expression itself.
I'm not suggesting that you need to carefully read every example. They are there more for reference, and will come in handy when we look at how the expression is actually used.

The Guardian

The Guardian Style Guide seems to agree with the naysayers, saying that the phrase is "almost invariably misused" and concludes rather wistfully:
Now used widely to mean "raises the question", its traditional sense is being lost, which seems a sad fate for a phrase that might be useful or even – in a logical or philosophical context – essential
David Marsh, writing in the Guardian in 2010, pointed out that of 33 mentions of 'begging the question' in the Guardian and Observer in the previous year, every single one used it as an alternative to 'raise the question'. And it's the same with the first ten examples found in a site search of the Guardian; none are in the traditional sense the style guide refers to. Like this title, they all refer to "leading to/raising the question", and are all followed by the particular question they 'beg'.
  • – will beg the obvious question, for both Godolphin and the BHA: "How can you be certain that this horse wasn't treated with steroids earlier this year?"
  • An answer to that might then beg the supplementary question: how long?
  • Both of these publications beg the question of how much tax is being managed?
  • It does rather beg the question as to why the connections of the sometimes quirky Sri Putra decided this morning that it was worth taking off a jockey who clearly gets on well with the horse and replacing him with a rider who had never sat on him before.
  • The gallery admit they knew nothing about the hidden treasure, but it does beg the question: has it really come to tactics like this to get the punters into the building?
  • although his display will beg the question as to why he has not played in such a way every week since he joined the club last season.
  • But it does beg the question; do we have a responsibility as artists to respect the scientific method?
  • "The latest allegations concerning Bob Lambert and the planting of incendiary devices would beg the question: has another undercover police officer crossed the line into acting as an agent provocateur?" she (Caroline Lucas of the Green party) said (speaking in parliament).
  • The problem with the British Comedy Awards - Odd categories result in certain shows and performers not being recognised and beg the question: should making people laugh be separated from the arts of making them cry or shiver?

The Telegraph

There's a similar story at the Telegraph. In an article called Grammar is a question of manners, a certain Dot Wordsworth (a language conservative) wrote:
Other constructions are annoying because the speaker should know better. Kirsty Wark used the phrase "beg the question" the other night to mean "invite the question", which it doesn't. To "beg the question" means to fallaciously take as proved the very premise you are arguing in favour of.
A view that doesn't seem to be shared by her fellow journalists or by the people they report. Not one of the first ten entries on a Telegraph site search for "beg the question" uses her preferred meaning.
  • But the experience does beg the question as to how child-friendly Latitude actually wants to be, or can be.
  • While nobody appreciates more than me the difficulty in filling up column inches in a newspaper, it does beg the question: how much of this endless outpouring of research by pollsters, economists, sociologists and others who would be better off getting a proper job is anything more than a waste of time and money? (Terry Wogan)
  • But, it does beg the question that if you really need an app to help say “marry me'', are you really ready to get hitched?
  • “There has got to be a more humane way of coping with somebody’s mental state, and, if it has got to that extreme level, it does beg the question: are there not proper facilities to care for people when they have severe cases of dementia?” (Neil Duncan-Jordan, the national officer of the National Pensioners’ Convention)
  • "With the public failures of the West Coast Mainline franchise debacle, it must beg the question if the department or HS2 has the leadership, capability or competence to deliver the largest infrastructure project in the UK in living memory." (Cheryl Gillan, a Tory MP)
  • Which begs the question, where exactly is Kate's midwife?
  • Doesn’t this beg the question: why fixate on the idea of a single candidate to replace Hytner?
  • So does that not beg the question, what exactly is the point of our Constitutional Monarchy that has no say or power?
  • It does beg the question, is it possible or would opticians be prepared to supply a printed test report …


Much of the first page consists of references to the use of beg the question, especially on letters pages to the BBC Magazine. There is also an article in the Magazine entitled 'Are language cops losing war against 'wrongly' used words?' where it gets a brief mention, alongside a few other 'problem' words. The writer says of beg the question:
This phrase is guaranteed to raise the ire of language purists. It describes a logical fallacy where one tries to prove a point by assuming the point is already valid: "Eating meat is immoral because meat is murder." But "to beg the question" is often used to mean "to raise the question", and that usage increasingly dominates, says Mignon Fogarty, author of the book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
And indeed it dominates those first ten entries on the BBC site which are not actually discussing the issue itself. That's 100% domination, once more.
  • Some might say that this is not unusual where law and lawyers are concerned, but it certainly begs a lot of questions.
  • The research team's initial findings [beg] the question as to whether the evolution of song in the Arabian Sea population did not progress to the apparently more complex song of other populations
  • But it is a reflection of how tough things are for the industry in Europe, and it does beg the question how long can Tata can continue to suffer losses like these?
  • The lack of match-winning innings from Ian Bell has long been a source of much discontent from 606ers, but it does rather beg the question - How can he possibly get back, having played so many tests and having won so few games for England?
  • It's tough for Alonso. As a driver, he deserves more from his car. Ferrari will be working hard on the next upgrade, but this has been going on for years now, and it does beg the question why they cannot find more performance.
  • It also begs the question about the worth of one piece of public art over another and the fame of one artist over another.
  • Cloud computing may be the hottest thing in corporate computing right now, but two IT disasters - at Amazon and Sony - beg the question: Is cloud computing ready for primetime business?
  • "It does beg the question about whether we need another process," said Mr Milner. (Simon Milner, British Telecoms's head of group policy)
  • Which does rather beg the question, what is at number seven in the rankings?
  • But, while Mullen, who plays his golf at Royal North Devon, can be proud of his achievement in firing two matching three-under 68s to win Local Final Qualifying at North Berwick and book his place a fortnight ago, it does beg the question of where the rest of the English contingent are.

The New York Times

Most of the entries on the first page of the site search for the New York Times refer to articles by language maven William Safire stoutly defending the traditional usage and lambasting the usurper. When it comes to examples in use though, it is the usurper which wins out.
But at least in the New York Times we can at last find at least one example (in bold) of the traditional use. And we also seem to have one example of the third meaning - to evade the question (underlined). But there is also one from 1862 (bold and underlined) that could be either, but my bet is for 'evade'.
  • The assertion that Mapplethorpe was an artist ''in the formalist mode,'' and the analysis of his photographs in terms of symmetry and classical composition, beg the question of what makes his pictures - or any photographs - art.
  • These theoretical issues are important, but they beg the question of why readers like to read autobiography, and why individuals are moved to write their life stories.
  • Understand that I do not beg the question, but I challenge discussion on this subject, on its merits, and in the way in which I am now prepared to advance it. Richard Cobden MP, 1862
  • The failure of the Real Estate section to take the lead in reporting the subprime crisis seems, to me, to exceed those limits and beg the question; is the real estate section a news division of the paper at all?
  • On the question of when the dividends might be resumed, Mr. Catacosinos said, 'I'll have to beg the question.' But Lilco did give optimistic responses to some other questions.
  • "It does beg the question why Matt and Judy, and not Bob," Mr. Hunt, an editor for Bloomberg News, said.
  • These numbers beg the question as to whether they simply reflect voter interest or are actually a preview of trends before they surface in the mainstream.
  • That seems to beg the question: Does the United States really need much of a domestic oil industry anyway?
  • Most of us understand one another when we use descriptions from mixed modalities. "Loud neckties," "sweet voices," "round notes," "white noise" (it's gray, actually), "rough wine" and "flat taste" are easily comprehended and not considered bizarre; to say such expressions are metaphors is to beg the question.
  • For starters, they beg the question of exactly why television should be educational in the first place.

British National Corpus

The British National Corpus is a little more illuminating. Out of ninety-seven examples found through Just the Word, thirty-two seem to be either of the fallacy meaning, or refer to avoiding the issue. Unfortunately, as we can't see the context, or sometimes even the whole sentence, it's not always clear which.
The following seem to me to be about the fallacy
  • Sartre's 'singular universal', therefore, begs the question, for it is predicated on the assumption that ...
  • The debate has been sterile because each side has begged the question by assuming itself to be correct.
  • This easy remark begs the question against the relevant argument
  • his account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question.
The following seem to me to be about avoiding the issue
  • since it begs the very question at issue.
  • and this begs the whole question.
  • But this objection begs the main question.
Whereas these are rather ambiguous
  • it begs the question, therefore, to describe it as
  • To say that seems to me to really beg the question.

Arguing about a non-existent problem - the case for peaceful co-existence.

We saw that the writer of the Guardian Style Guide worried that the traditional meaning might die out
which seems a sad fate for a phrase that might be useful or even – in a logical or philosophical context – essential
and at Beg the Question - Get it right they say:
logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous "modern" usage
But there is absolutely no reason why the specialist meaning should die out as a result of the modern usage. For one, many expressions have different meanings in a specialist context than in a general one. The term classical music, for example, can have different meanings for a musician and a layman.
But, more importantly, the way beg the question is used in its 'modern' sense is almost always different from the way it is used in its 'traditional' sense. There is really no need for any confusion.
If we look back at the examples with the "lead to/raise the question" meaning, they nearly all follow one of these patterns:
  • begs the question + colon + question
  • begs the question + comma + question
  • begs the question as to + question
  • begs the question of + question
  • begs the question + if/whether + question
The point to notice is that they are nearly always followed by the question they raise. There is only one example where this not the case, the first one from the BBC, but the context makes it pretty clear we are talking about real questions.
  • Some might say that this is not unusual where law and lawyers are concerned, but it certainly begs a lot of questions.
On the other hand, examples with the logical fallacy meaning are almost never followed by a question, because this meaning is not really about a question, but about an assertion. Most commonly they simply consist of the phrase itself as a comment on something already said or on why it is begging the question, as in those examples from the BNC and elsewhere:
  • Sartre's 'singular universal', therefore, begs the question, for it is predicated on the assumption that ...
  • The debate has been sterile because each side has begged the question by assuming itself to be correct.
  • This easy remark begs the question against the relevant argument
  • his account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question.
  • We're assuming, are we, that Anthony will still be in charge this time next year? That rather begs the question, doesn't it? (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary)
And when they are followed by something, it is not usually in the form of a question
  • These assumptions beg the question that children learn languages more easily than adults. (OALD)
  • The whole idea of a Patients' Charter begs the question that the government should be involved in the first place. (Macmillan)
Only very occasionally is it used in this meaning with a question, when it could perhaps be interpreted both ways. This example is from the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (quoted at as being an example of 'To assume what has still to be proved' (ie the logical fallacy meaning):
  • To say that we should help the region's democratic movement begs the question of whether it really is democratic.


Out of the first forty examples found at four media websites, only three referred to the traditional meaning. In fact it's probable that most examples of the traditional meaning to be found on the web are in discussions about the phrase, rather than actual use. It seems a bit perverse to say that such an overwhelmingly popular use among educated speakers, including well-respected speakers such as Rebecca Front and Kirsty Walk, is a 'misuse'.
Secondly, the only real area for confusion that I can see is between the two older meanings, that of the logical fallacy and of evading the issue. Which is something that never seems to get mentioned by thre naysayers. But there is rarely any possibility of ambiguity between the logical fallacy meaning and that of raising the question, so I can see absolutely no reason why the two should not be able to coexist in peaceful harmony. The whole thing is really a fuss about a problem that doesn't exist, which is rather begging the question, isn't it?


British dictionary definitions

American dictionary definitions

More on the meanings

Newspaper articles, discussions etc

The purist argument

Google site searches

Collocations and corpus examples

  • Just The Word - examples in context from the British National Corpus
  • Netspeak - collocations with begs the question


Stan said...

Good, thorough post. Like you I see the phrase used almost overwhelmingly in the "raise the question" sense. Anyone resisting this usage is entitled to, but those fighting it would save themselves a lot of annoyance by accepting it as a now-valid alternative.

I think some resistance to the newer usage owes to pedantic conceit: once an obscure usage is learned, the more common usage gives the pedant the pleasure of being "right" (and erudite, educated, etc.) when everyone else is "wrong" (ignorant, under-educated, etc.). This might also motivate some people's stubborn decimate-peeving.

By the way, I believe is based on the Random House Dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) is used by Yahoo:

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks very much for the comment and for listing me among this month's link loves on your blog, which I follow regularly.

I very much agree with your second point; there is a kind of smug self-satisfaction that often seems to go with this sort of purism.

As regards, I've had a more careful look, and you're right - the main entry is from Random House (and I'll alter my text accordingly). For 'beg the question' they also quote from 'The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition' and 'The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer' and perhaps I missed the wood for the trees.

uranrising said...

If we misuse language, we misuse thinking. It is silly to say "Oh some people will say we are getting the phrase wrong to show we are ignorant" as THOUGH no mistake has been made. The fact is "begging the question" has a meaning and it's silly to misuse it when there are, in fact, correct expressions - 'that raises the q; 'the question becomes'; 'leaves us with the q' and so forth. Using 'begging the q' when you mean one of those is simply a mistake.
The fact hat loads of respected people and organisations misuse language does not make it ok. It's misused a lot because of many factors, one being linguistic fashion.
Nor is it a lost cause to object. After I texted the Beeb and Private Eye, concluding with the PS "I thought you lot were hedgemecated", the Beeb's Today prog reverted to correct usage.
So 'begging the q.' is no more correct than misusing punctuation.
"Let's eat, grandma."
"Let's eat grandma."
Omitting a necessary comma can be fatal :-)

Warsaw Will said...

@uranrising - Firstly, I must thank you for giving us a real live example of begging the question in action. You base your argument on several assumptions which are at least open to question.

'If we misuse language, we misuse thought' - do you have any proof of that? Where is the authority that says an alternative use of 'begging the question' is a mistake or a misuse. Who decides what are 'correct expressions'? As far as I'm concerned these are simply assertions. See for example Eugene Volokh's blog.

Secondly, you've shown a possible link between the older and newer meanings of the expression, as I could also say of your comment that it raises the questions as to how we decide whether something in language is correct or a misuse. I'm firmly in the custom and usage camp there.

I think you may have overestimated your influence at the BBC. A site search still brings up page after page of the expression in the meaning you object to, including this one at Today's webpage.

And even if you'd succeeded, do you really want to join the ranks of the grammar police, like those who bullied Tescos into dropping the idiomatically perfectly good 'Ten items or less'?

What's more, you haven't addressed my central point that there is no reason why both meanings cannot co-exist, as there is little possibility of ambiguity. How about a little live and let live, and a little less laying down the law?

Warsaw Will said...

I should have added this link to Eugene Volokh's blog.

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