Posted by: Jack Henry | May 3, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Beg the Question

In Donna’s recent post about the most hated clichés, the phrase beg the question caught my attention. I find this cliché especially annoying because it’s not just overused; it’s also usually misused.

What Begging the Question Means

Begging the question refers to a logical fallacy in which the conclusion of an argument is used as evidence in the same argument.

For example, consider the following sentence: "Of course the mayor is honest; he said so himself!" If you break down the logic of this argument, it goes something like this:

1. The mayor is honest.

2. Because the mayor is honest, the things he says are true.

3. The mayor said he is honest.

4. Therefore, the mayor is honest.

If you already believe that the mayor is honest, this argument might seem fine (you didn’t need convincing, anyway). But if you think the mayor is dishonest, this argument won’t change your mind. Instead of providing evidence of the mayor’s honesty, it’s just begging the question: assuming the thing it’s supposed to prove.

What Begging the Question Doesn’t Mean

Begging the question doesn’t mean inviting an obvious question. Most editors (including those who follow the Chicago Manual of Style) would consider the following sentence to be incorrect: "The mayor resigned, which begs the question, ‘Who will be the new mayor?’" Instead, they would say, "The mayor resigned, which raises the question, ‘Who will be the new mayor?’"

However, this incorrect usage has become so common that some sources now consider it acceptable. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes the following definition:

· beg the question: to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response

Although this usage is common and may continue to become more widely accepted, for now, it’s best to say raises the question.

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
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