Question Begging


Others have addressed this topic before, in places with way more reach than this blog (like the New York Times. Ken Jennings wrote a bit about this a while back. So did Grammar Girl. There is even this.) So I’m not sure how much good this will do, but this one just annoys me too much not to write about.

The phrase “begs the question” is commonly used to mean “leads one to ask.” Even by people who should know better or by writers whose editors should know better. ( and here).  That is not really what it means. Or at least: that is not what it originally meant. This post is not about prescriptivism. “Begging a question” is when the supposed answer to a question assumes the contested fact or premise that the question is asking about. For some examples, try this and this). 

The first problem with the newer use is that it is a form of cliche or dead metaphor. It sounds evocative, like the statements already made are pleading with you to ask the next question. But like all etiolated phrases, it is really a weak placeholder for a more precise, original, or interesting use of language. It is an elision of more rigorous thought or explanation.

The second problem with this use is that it obscures the original fallacy. And it’s an important fallacy to be aware of, because it’s a common rhetorical trick, especially favored by politicians, as a way of shutting off argument, shifting the frame of an argument to one more favorable to them, or obscuring the lack of evidence to support a proposition.


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