Don’t you just love it when you learn something new unexpectedly? I was reading the news today when I saw an article titled “To beg or not to beg” and for some reason, I decided to take a look at it.1 I am glad I did, because it was a very interesting read, which I would like to share with you.
How often do you hear the phrase “to beg the question”? How do you use it?
In my case, I don’t really hear it that often, but I always understood it in the context of someone making a statement which imposes the need for a question to be asked. Here’s an example, a real statement by a diplomat.2
“It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on [the alleged Niger-Iraq nuclear materials exchange] that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?”
What do you know – I was wrong! This usage is common, but incorrect.
The article drew upon the expert knowledge of Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, who clarified the intended meaning of the phrase. It also pointed me to a really fun web site: begthequestion.info. Now who would have thought that this phrase is that misused that a web site has been created just for it?
Going back to the phrase, what is its proper use? The guys at begthequestion.info say it clearly.
“Begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.
A simple example would be “I think he is unattractive because he is ugly.” The adjective “ugly” does not explain why the subject is “unattractive” — they virtually amount to the same subjective meaning, and the proof is merely a restatement of the premise. The sentence has begged the question.
Given that explanation, why is the example I gave above wrong? It is simply because the initial statement is not a logical fallacy. There is no assumption made that has to be proved. It does, however, raise the question of what else the government is lying about.
I think the easiest way to go about it is to avoid using “beg the question” when you’re simply thinking about “raising a question”.
Photo via EduardoZ