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03 January 2007

Deborama's WWW Number 6 - Beg the Question? Get it right!

Just in time for Wednesday, I was listening to a great programme about words on the radio (Radio 4's Word of Mouth) and amongst some other wonderful stuff about words that have appeared over the horizon this year just past (2006 that is) there was a snippet about the website for a society that I have always dreamed might exist yet never knew it did all along. The group to which I refer is begthequestion.info and their purpose in existence is to get people to stop using the term "begs the question" in a completely incorrect manner. In case you are one of the majority of - oh - at a guess, 99.76% of English-speakers who do this, I will let the experts set you straight, because frankly I am sick of trying:

To beg the question does not mean "to raise the question." (e.g. "It begs
the question, why is he so dumb?") This is a common error of usage made by those
who mistake the word "question" in the phrase to refer to a literal question.
Sadly, the error has grown more and more common with time, such that
even journalists, advertisers, and major mass media entities have fallen prey to
"BTQ Abuse."
While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are
content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be
denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label
should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly
distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous "modern" usage. This
is why we fight.

OK, you ask, in your fog of confusion, what does it mean then? (Because chances are very, very, very high that you have never in your life heard it used correctly, unless you have taken a university-level course in logic or have very well-educated and pedantic parents, or both.) I am not in total agreement with the definition the website (yes, even the passionate are not quite precise enough for me) but the one provided by Wikipedia is quite up to scratch:

Begging the question in logic, also known as circular reasoning and by the Latin name petitio principii, is an informal fallacy found in many attempts at logical arguments. An argument which begs the question is one in which a premise presupposes the conclusion in some way. Such an argument is valid in the sense in which logicians use that term, yet provides no reason at all to believe its conclusion.

I will give my favourite example. In an episode of The Good Life, Margo Leadbetter is asked by Barbara Good why she hates pigs so much. She looks at Barbara in dumfounded astonishment and says "Because they are pigs!"

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