Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 28: Which Begs the Question?

In our last episode, we had a discussion about prescriptivism v. descriptivism. Begs the question is another linguistic lightning rod that tends to perturb one camp or the other when it's perceived that it has been used incorrectly. Begs the question is an idiom that has come to mean "raises the question" or "causes one to ask." For example:
Carrot cake is Heather's favorite, which begs the question, why did they serve German chocolate cake at her birthday?
This common usage often comes under fire because as Michael Quinion writes in his book Port Out, Starboard Home:
"Most of our problems arise because whoever translated it made a mess of the job....The Latin might better be translated as 'laying claim to the principle,' that is assuming something which needs first to be proved."
When Quinion writes that the translator made a mess of the job, he means that the phrase begs the question came about like a game of "telephone."
  1. In 350 BCE, Aristotle originally described a logical problem where a person uses a conclusion to make an argument.
  2. Aristotle's Greek was later translated into the Latin, petitio principii.
  3. And in the year 1581, the Latin phrase was retranslated into English as begs the question.
The problem with begging the question is that it's closely related to circular logic. For example:
Extra terrestrial life must exist because I have had experiences that can only be explained by the existence of life on other planets.
Here, the conclusion is that aliens exist. However, the argument begs the question because the evidence is just as dubious as the conclusion. It would be sort of like saying "aliens must exist because aliens exist."

Linguistic controversy arises because modern speakers and writers take the word "beg" in the phrase to mean, "humbly submit" as in "I beg your pardon" or "I beg to differ." Purists resist the interpretation, but begs the question is another example of an idiom. That is, language that has morphed from its original definition and taken on a different meaning in common usage. All that said, should writers, as Quinion advises, "avoid the phrase altogether" in order to prevent conflict? That begs the question...

Sources: Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion and Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield.

Music from this Episode: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by The Rolling Stones; "We Just Disagree" by Dave Mason.

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