You Are Allowed to Beg the Question

Clarity!It has been a while since I’ve written anything about grammar. And on this wonderfully rainy day in the Bay Area, one could do worse than spend a little time enjoying our great language. For some time, I’ve wanted to discuss the phrase “beg the question.” My interest in the phrase is that it is one of the grammar rules that the grammar snobs love to complain about. And as usual, you shouldn’t listen to these pedants.

If you’ve ever been forced to take a class in “critical thinking” or if you were in the debate club (I’m so sorry for you!) or otherwise instructed in the great and noble art or rhetoric, you have run across the fallacy of “begging the question.” What it means in this context is that you are assuming the conclusion. An excellent example of this comes to us from James Welton in A Manual of Logic (Volume 2), “Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality.” In other words, “Opium induces sleep because of its sleep producing quality.” Or even more simply, “Opium induces sleep because it induces sleep.” (This is Ken Ham logic!)

But when people use the phrase, “begging the question,” they usually don’t mean this. Instead, they mean that it begs for the question to be asked. The pedants hate this. “That’s not what it means!” they shout. “When I was in the tenth grade, I took a speech course and they told me what it means, so you can’t use it like that!” Grammar snobs are some of the most slappable people in the world.

The truth is that “begging the question” started, as with most things having to do with logic, with Aristotle. But the Greek was mistranslated into Latin (petitio principii) and then the incorrect Latin was mistranslated again into English. Scott Gregory Schreiber says that Aristotle used two phrases meaning “asking the original point” and “assuming the initial point.”

This highlights the ridiculousness of claiming that the phrase must only be used for one stated purpose. How long are we going to continue to make this mistake?

Meanwhile, to the vast majority of English speakers, the phrase “beg the question” means to “beg that the question be ask.” What’s more, that is pretty close to literally what it means. If you asked someone who had never heard the phrase before, they would most likely assume that it means this. They would most certainly not come up with, “Assume the conclusion.” Now clearly, if you are in a rhetoric class, you need to use the standard pedant definition. But in writing, have at it. Let’s suppose you write, “This begs the question whether grammar pedants should be socially ostracized.” No one, not even the pedants, will be confused about what you meant.

And remember the first and last rule of writing: clarity is all.

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