LawProse Lesson #167: The evolution of “beg the question.”

LawProse Lesson #167: The evolution of “beg the question.”

The evolution of beg the question. Traditionally, this phrase means “to base a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself.” The formal Latin name for this logical fallacy is petitio principii. The tenth edition of Black’s Law Dictionary (released last month) defines it on pp. 183–84: “to engage in the fallacious assumption that a premise is true despite the lack of any warrant for so assuming; esp., to make an argument in which the point to be proved is implicitly taken for granted.” In other words, an argument whose premise is also the conclusion: a circular argument. Here’s an example: “The defendant’s actions were illegal because he is charged with a crime.” In modern usage, however, some new meanings have all but crowded out the old sense, much to the dismay of staunch traditionalists. Beg the question is now commonly used to mean (1) “to invite or raise another question; esp., an obvious one”; or (2) “to evade or ignore an issue.” Surprisingly, the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary recognizes only these contemporary senses: beg the question. 1: To pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled. 2: To elicit a question logically as a reaction or response <the quarterback’s injury begs the question of who will start in his place>. [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 110 (11th ed. 2011).] But many sources still adhere to the traditional definition, shunning the modern uses. Here’s what some reputable sources say about the phrase:
  • Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, accessed June 12, 2014): “To take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”
  • William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual § 1101, at 317 (10th ed. 2005): “This phrase is often used mistakenly to mean ‘to avoid answering a question’ or ‘to invite a question.’ Here is what it really means: ‘to assume as a fact the very thing you are trying to prove.’ The illustration most often cited is this: ‘Parallel lines never meet because they are parallel.'”
  • Allan M. Siegal & William G. Connolly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage 39 (1999): “[The phrase] does not mean pose the issue or avoid the issue. To beg the question is to assume the truth of the proposition one is trying to prove. The phrase is so often used loosely that it is likely to be misunderstood.”
  • Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 228 (Erik Wensberg ed., rev. ed. 1998): “[The phrase is] not to be used when one has the feeling that the other’s argument is simply unfair or off the point. It means only: using as an argument some disguised form of the proposition in question . . . . A few illiterate speakers misuse the idiom for ask or raise the question . . . .”
  • R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 101 (3d ed. 1996): “1. In strict use, the English equivalent of Latin petitio principii, used in logic to mean the ‘fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself.’ 2. In general use, the meaning is much more likely to be ‘to evade a difficulty’ or ‘to refrain from giving a straightforward answer.'”
  • Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage 45 (Janet Whitcut ed. 1995): “[T]o assume the truth of something that cannot be taken for granted. The phrase does not correctly mean either ‘pose a question’ or ‘avoid giving a straight answer to it.'”
In Garner’s Modern American Usage, I rate the misuse of beg the question for evade the issue at Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index: in other words, it is commonplace among many well-educated people but still to be avoided in careful usage. I rate the misuse of beg the question for invite the follow-up question at Stage 4: that sense is virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts or die-hard snoots. (See Garner’s Modern American Usage 93–94 (3d ed. 2009)). It shouldn’t surprise you that my advice is to avoid the troubled phrase altogether if you want to be completely clear. If you want to say that something raises or invites a question, then say raise the question or invite the question. If you want to say that someone or something is “evading the issue,” then say evade the issue. If you want to explain that an argument is circular or not logical, then simply say it’s circular or illogical. Or if you’re a sesquipedalian pedant, accuse your interlocutor of petitio principii. And don’t beg anyone’s pardon. Thanks to Sam Black for suggesting this topic.

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