Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Are you begging the question correctly?

I was guilty of not using this phrase correctly either. Someone corrected me several years ago, and now it has become one of my biggest pet peeves even though I can't claim I always knew how to use it properly. I get that not everyone is going to understand how to use "beg the question" in the right situation, but I do find it frustrating when I watch shows like The Big Bang Theory, where the genius Sheldon often corrects people's grammar, and yet the show has actually had characters using that phrase incorrectly (as well as "the reason is because", but that's for another entry!).

The question here affects not so much grammar as semantics. The verb "to beg the question" is actually a term from philosophy, more specifically the study of logic. "Begging the question" is a form of logical fallacy in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any evidence to demonstrate why the statement is true in the first place.

An example of this would be something like the following:

"Bob is trustworthy because I can trust him."

As you can see, this really isn't quality evidence or proof of Bob's trustworthiness. Moreover, you can also see that in begging the question, there is actually no question involved from a grammatical point of view. There is an implied question about the logic used in this statement, but no one is actually asking a question.

What happens in most cases is that people say "begs the question" when they mean "raises the question".

For example:


"The lack of snow removal on city streets begs the question, where are our property taxes going?" 


"The lack of snow removal on city streets raises the question, where are our property taxes going?"

The former statement is the one you would most typically hear, but it is definitely incorrect.

There's rarely a time when most of us would use "begging the question" in everyday conversation, so just remember, you're more than likely trying to say "raises the question".

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