I’m imagining a world-weary copy editor 50 years ago fighting in vain against the rising tide in general usage of singular they and data, the word impactful, and using like to mean such as. Fifty years from now, some 42-year-old copy editor might find this post buried in the Web 2.0 archives and decide that I am now engaged in a similarly hopeless battle to preserve an old phrase.
That phrase: “begging the question.”
Historically, “begging the question” (also called petitio principii) refers to a logical fallacy in which the proof of a statement is based on a premise that has the same meaning as the original statement it purports to prove.
This type of circular reasoning is the evil, Van Dyke-wearing twin of a tautology. Whereas a tautology is logically true because it makes a statement only about itself (e.g., “This sentence is six words long.”), “begging the question” uses self-reference to try prove something beyond itself. Sometimes the fallacy is laughable (“The reason so many people want the new iPhone is because it’s so popular.”), but it can be more sinister (“We should not allow war refugees in because they come from a violent part of the world, and we don’t want to bring that type of culture into our country.”).
At least that’s what “begging the question” has meant historically and, I argue, how it ought to still be used. But too often, writers use the phrase to mean something closer to “raising the question,” “leading to the question,” or “begging us to ask the follow-up question.” And this alternative usage isn’t restricted to lazy writers either. It slips through in practically any closely edited newspaper or magazine. To call out just two:
- From The Guardian, the headline, “Restrictive Voting Laws Beg the Question: Is This 2013 or 1953?”
- From a satirical New Yorker piece about slow internet connections: “Get away from it all with this [beach-house-rental Wi-Fi] Internet connection, which begs the question, ‘Do I actually need to be in contact with the outside world?'”
As this usage gains more ground, it leads to — though does not beg — the question of whether it is time we editors accept it. Clearly some either don’t notice it anymore or have made their peace with it. Dictionaries now include it as a secondary definition of the phrase. (Merriam-Webster even retains a link to logic as it does so: “to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response.”) Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, puts it at Stage 4 of 5 on the language change index. Is it time we stopped fighting to keep the original begging of questions?
I can’t give you an answer. Like choosing to accept or deny singular they, you must make your own personal, professional decision.
I do think it’s inevitable that in a decade or two, “begging the question” will, at least in general usage, cease to refer to petitio principii. So I recognize that fighting to preserve the old meaning by continuing to change the misused “begs the question” to “raises the question” is essentially a battle against destiny itself.
But I choose to fight it anyway. We have numerous ways to say that something raises, leads to, or logically elicits a follow-up question, but “begging the question” has a specific meaning that no other words in English can convey as concisely. Losing it would only lessen our language overall.
And to the 42-year-old copy editor reading this in the 2060s, please do not judge me too harshly; I only want what’s best for my readers and my language.