I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I am a linguist.

This does not mean that I go around picking apart other people’s speech.

Normally.

This time I’m going to make an exception. This is a grammar rant, so buckle up.

“Begs the Question”

Everyone uses this phrase wrongly. Usually, misused phrases kind of tickle me. Common usage and all that. Plus, I am sure there are some that I misuse myself. But this one is really annoying. So listen up, people:

“Begs the question” is NOT the same thing as “raises the question.”

If a situation naturally leads to a certain question, that is not begging the question. It is “raising” or “provoking” the question. For example, the Green New Deal will cost $93 trillion. Which raises the question, Where is that money going to come from? Or, my son just showed up with chocolate all over his face. Which raises the question, What happened to that pudding I made an hour ago?

“Begging the question” is a technical term from the realm of formal logic and debate. It refers to a logical fallacy where the argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

For example, “Intelligent design is not a scientific theory because the only legitimate kind of science relies on pure naturalism.” ID is unscientific because we have defined it as unscientific. This is begging the question.

I don’t know how that particular method of arguing in a circle came to be called begging the question. Maybe because these kinds of arguments avoid the question that they purport to answer. And I agree that the phrase begging the question sounds like it ought to mean raising an obvious question.

But it doesn’t.

This has been a public service announcement.

13 thoughts on “I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

  1. Okay Jen, This time I think you have it wrong. My understanding of language, gained mostly from my English teach father, is the meaning of a language, or words in it, is dependent on its usage. So if “Everyone uses this phrase wrongly.” I say the meaning of it has probably changed, You’re not claiming it’s slang or a fad. In other words, something temporary, but in widespread use by the general population. If so, then Tom says that’s what it means these days. Give it a few more years and it will be in the dictionary.

    End of sermon.

    Tom > >

    >

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ordinarily, Tom, I agree with you. I have no problem with using “awesome” as a casual compliment … using “hopefully” to modify an entire sentence instead of just a verb … using “they” and “their” as generic singular pronouns … or most of other things that grammar mavens like to get techty about. (Or with ending a sentence with a preposition. About.)

      I also have no problem with the very natural English process whereby nouns get turned into verbs (e.g. “access”) nor with the new words that are constantly entering the language, such as doozing and doxxing.

      My problem with the misuse of “begs the question” is that BTQ is already a technical term. It’s as if people were misusing a technical phrase from medicine, law, or mathematics. And what THAT shows is that people are uneducated about the terms of logic and debate, even in professions such as journalism where you’d think that would be a requirement.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Agreed! It is not that the meaning has broadened, but that people have heard the term, don’t know what it means, and are attempting to use it correctly, but fail.

        And to echo C.S. Lewis, we already have a term for “raises the question,” so all that is happening is that we are losing a meaningful and useful term. The language is poorer.

        Like

  2. Update: Ben Shapiro misused “begs the question” during one of his podcasts this week.

    He has a law degree.

    I think this shows that in speech if not in writing, “begs the question” is now a synonym for “raises the question” because so many people have heard it used that way.

    The result is going to be that people who study logical fallacies will be surprised to realize that BTQ used to mean something different.

    Nice going, newscasters.

    Like

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