‘Begs The Question’ Does Not Mean ‘Demands An Answer’

By J. Wisniewski on Tuesday, September 24, 2013
question
“Think for yourself and question authority.” —Timothy Leary

In A Nutshell

Incorrectly, writers and speakers often use the phrase “begs the question” to mean “raises the question [of…].” Begging the question, however, has nothing to do with “questions” that you ask. The phrase is actually a logical fallacy. In a debate or argument, if one side sneakily asks the other side to concede the issue being debated, that would be begging the question.

The Whole Bushel

As with just about everything else, the Ancient Romans essentially laid the foundation for modern logical debate (perhaps an oxymoron, but still). They did such a good job that we still use a number of their rules to encourage logical arguments and well-structured debates. We also use their methods of calling out someone debating in an unfair or illogical manner. “Petito principii” from which the English, “begging the question” descends, was one such method.

Imagine a prosecuting lawyer examining a defendant on the stand for beating his wife. The first thing the prosecutor asks the man is, “What color fedora do you wear when you beat your wife?” The whole point of the trial is to determine whether or not that very crime has occurred, but with the wording of his examination of the defendant, the lawyer assumed that the issue at hand (i.e., the “question” of wife-beating) is true.

Any judge (who’s actually awake) would put the kibosh on that line of questioning. The Ancient Romans would have called out “B.S.!” Or, rather “petito principii!”

If you replace the word question with “issue,” it makes more sense. And to beg the question or issue is to ask the opposing side to concede the entire debate, but on the sly, like a lawyer or some other type of talking weasel.

The problem with the modern, corrupted usage is that we already have multiple ways of “raising the question,” but without the shorthand of “begging the question” it becomes rather more difficult to call out the verbal trap laid by our hypothetical lawyer in the example above.

Show Me The Proof

Logical Fallacy: Begging the Question
A Delineation of the Primary Principles of Reasoning
BTQ Cards: Get It Right

  • Exiled Phoenix

    As first poster I have a joke.
    Ok, so four nuns are sitting outside of confession. The first nun goes in and says “forgive me father for I have sinned. I seen a mans penis.” the father says “Oh thats awful. I want you to say ten hail marys and wash your eyes out with holy water.” So she says her hail marys and washes her eyes out. The second nun goes in and says “Forgive me father for I have sinned, I touched a mans penis.” The father says “Oh thats worse than the last one. I want you to say 20 hail marys and wash your hands with holy water.” So she says her hail marys and washes her hands. Suddenly the father hears yelling outside the confessional box, he steps out and sees the other two nuns arguing, and he asks “ladies whats going on? You’re sisters.” Well the fourth nun whom had been eavesdropping says “I am not washing my mouth out in the holy water after she sits in it.”

    • Joseph

      That’s not really funny. You skipped from 2-4 nuns.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        It was funny plus 2 nuns went through, other two fought outside because the fourth one knew what the third one did…I can’t believe I had to explain that to you.

        • Joseph

          It wasn’t funny and it would make more sense with 3 nuns.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            Did it offend your delicate sensibilities? It was a joke and it is funny. Get over it, if it offends you.

          • Joseph

            No, it didn’t offend me. I just didn’t find it funny. It’s doesn’t really fit with article either.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            As first poster I made a joke instead of making a relevant point about the article. I stated it before the joke. 10 to 1 find it funny.

          • Joseph

            I’m sure some people found it funny. I just didn’t think it was. It was probably a bad idea for me to comment at all since jokes are based on an individuals sense of humor. I find things that are more offensive than that funny though so, it isn’t that. I guess my only point was that I think you should change it to include a explicit reference to all four nuns.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            I did include all four nuns, the third one was going to have to wash her coochy with the holy water and the fourth one was going to have to wash her mouth out after. And the joke was funny!

        • wormee

          E.B. White – “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

          • Exiled Phoenix

            Sometimes…. sometimes.

          • TheTimmynator

            Well, usually the frog dies in the process.
            Oh wait, that’s vivisection. My bad. No wonder I got some strange looks.

    • R5h2x

      You know what you should have done? You should have done this…….(After the first two nuns) 3rd nun: “Forgive me father for I have sinned, I licked a mans penis.” The Father says “Oh my god! Say 50 hail marys and drink the holy water” 4th nun:”Forgive me father for I have sinned, I peed in the holy water!”

      • Exiled Phoenix

        I prefer they all sinned in someway with a nun. But jokes are meant to be changed up for peoples amusement. So either way, it should make people laugh.
        Thanks for the suggestion though, it was still funny.

  • JtW

    Actually, it does mean “raises the question”. Not saying it didn’t (and still does) mean what you indicate, but it is well understood, and more widely used, in the new meaning. Context is everything.

    Which begs the question, what happens when a world full of people start accepting a new meaning to a phrase in a living language?

  • Eric Reichert

    I agree that it is still wrong to use the term incorrectly but the error is certainly understandable. Given that the English version of the term was first used in the 17th Century (when English usage was very different than we have today) and that the only people who know the correct usage of the term are those who have formal logic with some depth, would it not make more sense to have a different expression for the fallacy? Why not use the original Latin term instead?

    • JtW

      I’m not sure why you (and the author) think it is an incorrect usage. The words “proof” or “trivial” mean something completely different in the mathematics where it started, and it is not incorrect to use them in a casual conversation to mean what the layman thinks of them meaning.

      So let the law keep using the term as it was originally meant. And the rest of us will continue to use it (correctly) with the newer meaning.

  • SiLenTPiece

    In today’s literal English, it does mean what many use it to mean. The ancient term today would be better served to be called an assuming question. But now, beg commonly means to ask for in a pleading manner. So, if something begs a question, it desperately asks for for a question to be raised.

    • Jum1801

      Oh goody, another “No rules!” guy.

      • SiLenTPiece

        It doesn’t mean “begging an answer.” The phrase is generally followed by a question begging to be asked, ie the topic is “begging for a question.” I don’t consider a new phrase being generated by the evolution of language to be “dumbing down.” If we didn’t evolve language, we’d all still speak Latin.

  • Yogi Barrister

    Yes it does! In English, that’s how the expression is used today, only tiresome pedants argue otherwise.

    Without begging the question, “Why can’t the meaning of words and phrases evolve over time?”.