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October 03, 2002

Begs the Question

Friedrich --

It’s the rare language-usage error that makes me emerge from my usual apathetic shell, but this one does: the epidemic misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” I almost never see it used properly these days. Writers -- and, perhaps worse, their editors and copy editors -- seem to think “begs the question” means “provokes us to ask,” or “makes me wonder,” or something close to that.

An example is in today's Wall Street Journal. Michael Judge, in an opinion piece about Amiri Baraka’s loathesome WTC poem, writes that “New Jersey’s previous poet laureate, Gerald Stern, recently told the New York Times he was ‘shocked at the stupidity of Somebody Blew Up America,' saying ‘Lies never serve good, and there was hate in it.’ Which begs the question: was there no hate in Mr. Baraka’s earlier work?”

No, no, no, no!

What “begs the question” in fact means is “to assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it” (thank you, Oxford desktop dictionary).

The statement “We’re going to publicize the hell out of this excellent blog,” for instance, begs the question of whether or not this blog really is excellent. A not-bad way of understanding this meaning is: You beg a question when you skip over a matter that’s disputable. The question begged isn't what the statement makes you think or wonder, but is instead the matter that’s skipped over.

And here I withdraw back into my shell, there to await the arrival of the real language buffs, who’ll finetune and/or correct me. As well they should: in order to thrive, language (like a city) needs policing. The superego has its functions too.



posted by Michael at October 3, 2002


Thank you for adding your voice to those crying in the wilderness to preserve this valuable phrase, whose misuse is epidemic among journalists.

"Begging the question does not mean 'evading the issue' or 'inviting the obvious questions,' as some mistakenly believe. The proper meaning of begging the question is 'basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof as the conclusion itself.' The formal name for this logical fallacy is petitio principii."
B. Garner, Modern American Usage (Oxford, 1998)

Posted by: T. Anderson on November 15, 2002 6:58 PM

Nevertheless, even if the Oxford dictionary defines it to be a particularly the meaning of language comes from use. If most people use, or begin to use, "begs the question" to mean to ask the obvious question then that is it's definition. You can't police a language (and the concept of the superego is somewhat outdated also). Languages are dirty and messy and that's the way they should be. Otherwise they'd be non-poetic, esperanto derivitives.

Posted by: Michael on September 1, 2003 2:04 AM

Hrmmm, I was just about to *misuse* the phrase on my blog when I did a quick google search and found this post. You set me straight, damn skippy. Thanks.

Posted by: Aaron W. Benson on October 20, 2003 9:33 AM

So how in the hell do we get everyone to STOP using it before it's too late? Language is shaped by journalists these days...

Posted by: Yasukai on January 23, 2004 4:25 AM

Your comments beg the question, is language defined the Oxford dictionary (, the common usage dictionary (

Either way, there's glory enough for you.;-)

-- Humpty Dumpty

Posted by: Humpty Dumpty on June 5, 2004 7:32 PM

Your comments beg the question, is language defined the Oxford dictionary (, the common usage dictionary (

Either way, there's glory enough for you.;-)

-- Humpty Dumpty

Posted by: Humpty Dumpty on June 5, 2004 7:33 PM

Whenever someone tries to argue about the fine points of English, I just end the conversation by saying "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" - How's that for classic nonsense?

Posted by: Tyler Zesiger on June 17, 2004 1:10 PM

Sure, language is often shaped by use, but it doesn't change the fact that a.) the phrase "begging the question" has a meaning b.) the meaning is often misconstrued by modern journalists and c.) it makes them seem like illiterate retards to people who know the "proper" meaning of "beg the question".

Posted by: Timboo_drow on July 2, 2004 1:24 PM

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