Usage quandaries, part 1: Beg the question
It begs the question: Did you try and literally infer you could care less?
So many phrases to argue over in one little tweet. Would you allow any of them to stand in an edit? Some of them? All of them? Over the next few weeks, I’ll examine each usage problem in turn.
Begs the question
Begs the question comes from logic and is used to point out that an argument made to prove a claim doesn’t actually prove said claim. The argument’s foundation is based on the claim being true.
On his Common Errors in English website, Paul Brians offers a clear example of begging a question: “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.” Nothing in that sentence tells us why the painting is trash. The argument begs the question “What makes the painting worthless?”
People outside of the logic discipline have reinterpreted begs the question to mean “invite a follow-up question.” As in:
Despite these laws, there has been increasing concern over the past decade about the increases in the nonmedical use and abuse of prescription drugs. This begs the question of whether the passing of laws addressing the supply side of the problem is the correct approach.—Journal of Drug Issues (Winter 2009)
“The newer meaning is much more common, of course,” says Walsh, “but you won’t see it in copy I’ve written or edited. I’m just not sure we really need another way to express raise the question.
Several style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, also advise not using begs the question in this newer sense. But even Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that this meaning is “virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage goes further, claiming that begs the question is “fully accepted as standard.”
If even academic and scientific journals are using begs the question to mean “invite a follow-up question,” should you accept it in text? It’s a reasonable argument; there are several reputable resources on your side.
The trick for copyeditors is to know the audience. If the audience is full of traditionalists who bristle at any changes in the language, edit begs the question to raises the question. But if traditionalists represent only a small portion of your audience—or are entirely absent—then let begs the question stand.
Where do you stand on begs the question: Love it? Hate it? Share your opinions in the comments section below!
The rest of the series