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Oh, get over this one too | COMMENTARY

A correspondent is exercised over what the ignorant masses* have done to beg the question.

He insists the term should carry its traditional meaning, the logical fallacy of assuming the truth of what your argument is trying to prove, a circular argument. The Romans called it petitio principii, “assuming the original point.”

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An example I offer students: 1. God is all-powerful. 2. How do you know that? 3. Because he is God.

But begging the question, though it is the way that petitio principii was Englished in the sixteenth century, doesn’t immediately suggest what it means, and the expansion of meaning has been significant.

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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that the term has also come to be understood to mean “to sidestep the issue,” which is not quite what the logical term means.

But both of those senses have been swamped by the increasingly common use of beg and question literally, to mean “raise the question,” “prompt the question,” “call to mind the question,” “invite the question.” This newer meaning is standard in the major dictionaries. American Heritage does not have a usage panel note that there is any problem with it, and Bryan Garner, who says in Garner’s Modern English Usage that he finds it slipshod, nevertheless acknowledges its prevalence.

What’s a mother to do?

Well, start by acknowledging that there are more people raising questions than studying formal logic and that you cannot muscle the English language into meaning what only you prefer. Adjust your discourse to what your audience can be expected to understand.

Still, beg the question and question-begging are nice terms for sandbagging an inept argument. If you are writing for an academic audience — well, perhaps a liberal-arts academic audience — or, say, The New York Review of Books, beg away. It’s likely you’ll be understood there.

* In the course of his philippic he made mention of the hoi polloi and did not take it well when I mentioned that some might call that a solecism.  

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