2-19. Begging the Question

You’ve heard the term “Begs the Question” before. Taken at face value, it seems to mean… “You’ve made a statement that forces me to ask this question.” As in, you’re “begging for a questionto be asked.” For example, stating that I brought a zebra to work the other day “begs the question” of “Why did you bring a zebra to work?” or “Where did you get a zebra.”However, when we go back to the Latin root of the phrase, “petition principii,” we find that it means “back to the original point.” So, the proper use of “begs the question” would be as follows:

“The Bible is the word of God because it says it is.”
“That begs the question. Revelation can not successfully support its own veracity.”

If you happen to be writing an academic paper and use the phrase “begs the question” in the informal common usage I first mentioned, you’ll likely be marked down for it. But if your chatting with friends at a local watering hole, what should you do when you hear the phrase used as I did in the zebra example?

Some say you should correct the person and let them know that they’re using the phrase improperly. Others say that how the phrase is used is de facto what the definition is. Words have no defined meaning, they just mean what people use them to mean.

And therein lies a conundrum for the curious. As there is no official body dictating the correct usage of the English language, and many words have changed their meaning completely over time, what do we do with phrases like “beg the question?”

One answer is to ignore them. If you hear someone use the phrase, you should be able to tell which meaning they’re using by the context of the conversation. In the Bible example above, an explanation is given as to why “The Bible is true because it says it is” begs the question. That’s likely to be the case whenever that usage is meant. In the more common usage, it’s also obvious as the question that is being “begged” or asked for, is then stated.

So for the curious, there isn’t a problem of communication. There’s a problem of “being correct.” If you wish to align with the prescriptivists who believe that there are hard set rules for language, that’s a valid choice. But it’s equally valid to align with the descriptivists who believe words are defined by their usage. And it’s completely possible to stay outside of both camps, and live with the reality that words are used in different ways, and people can have strong opinions of them.



Original photo by Alberto Gottardo

Original photo by Alberto Gottardo

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