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If beggars could question

How frequently do you (as a copy editor or otherwise) come across the phrase "begs the question" as a synonym for "raises the question?" How close are we to altering the original definition?

Few things make me this angry.

So wrote an irate Jason Jones. Let's look at what has exercised him.

"To beg the question" does not mean to raise or pose or provoke a question. It is a technical term in logic for a circular argument.

Edward P.J. Corbett's Classic Rhetoric for the Modern Student (as useful for his list and descriptions of tropes as for his list and descriptions of fallacies) gives two examples. The lawyer who says, "My client would not steal because he is an honest man," is begging the question. A longer version: "'God exists.' 'How do you know that God exists?' 'The Bible says so.' 'Why should I put my credence in what the Bible says?' 'Because it's the inspired word of God.' God is worthy of a more cogent
argument than this."

Writers who were not taught logic in school -- evidently a great many -- will think that to beg a question means to give rise to a question.

In that they are like the multitude of writers who have appropriated technical but dimly understood language. A parameter, for example, is "a constant, with variable values, used as a referent for
determining other variables." If you are a mathematician, that definition from Webster's New World College Dictionary probably means something to you. If you are not a mathematician, you are probably using parameter to mean a boundary or limit or guideline, or perhaps nothing in
particular.

People do write this way. Some even talk this way. Eventually, loose applications of technical terms to different contexts find their way into the dictionary, some embedding themselves in the language. That is fine. But in the interval, anyone who wishes to write precisely will be cautious.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:15 PM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

The misuse of this phrase seems to be ubiquitous at law schools. The professors really ought to know better.

In like manner (or manor, if I'm feeling hifalutin), I wage a futile battle against "impact' as a verb. I feel it is best reserved for its narrow meaning (to collide with), rather than as an all-purpose substitute for "affect" or "influence." I have blogged on this myself; I suspect you have too.

"Begs the question" is misused mostly, I suspect, because the construction, uh, begs to be misused.

When you hear the phrase you intuitively think "begs" means "requests" and from there it's a short step to "raises."

People *should* be more precise because "raises" is more precise than "begs" in this context, but sometimes from a language standpoint it just feels easier to go with the familiar phrase as commonly understood, or misunderstood in this case.

A, um, favorite dis-favorite of many people is "paradigm," which of course has technical meaning(s). ("I opine, you opine, he/she/it opines.") I believe (can't find cite) that Thomas Kuhn at one point expressed some regret that he'd coined the term "paradigmn shift," given its mutation upon release into the wild.

The problem with "beg the question" is that it sure _sounds_ like it's raising a question, with the added connotation that the question is really begging to be raised, as it were. It is perhaps an unfortunate coinage for its technically correct meaning. In fact, why the term "beg the question" is used to mean "circular argument" isn't at all clear, at least not to me. As an aside, it would be interesting to survey people and ask whether there is anything wrong with the examples you provide of circular reasoning. The results would probably be ... dismaying.

As another (and last) aside, it's interesting to note that "to impact" in its sense of "collide with" is intransitive -- you can't say "The ball impacted the bat." But in its figurative sense, it can be transitive: "The sales figures impacted the entire company." (I think.)

I prefer the more general definition: an argument begs the question when the denial of the premises is more plausible than the conclusion.

Here's a comic strip directly related to this very, um, question: I like to print it out and stick it all over copy desk bulletin boards. :-)


http://www.qwantz.com/index.pl?comic=693

(Mouse over the comic after reading for bonus line.)

I think we should just start saying "petitio principi" instead of "begging the question". It's a crappy translation, no one who's never studied logic can guess what it means - due to the huge number of English phrases with "beg" in them that do mean what people think they mean - and we seem happy to use argumentum ad hominem, tu quoque, non sequitur, argumentum ad misericordiam, and post hoc, ergo propter hoc, among many others. So it's not the Latin scaring us off!

Impact is not a verb. The verb is 'impinge': Something which impinges upon something else has had an impact. Unlike a comment on a lapsed thread.

this article, while very true, is quite pretentious. particularly obvious is overblown and arrogant statements like this one:
"Writers who were not taught logic in school -- evidently a great many -- will think that to beg a question means to give rise to a question."
come on big fella

I'm sorry but all of this is just ridiculous.

Every comment on this blog except the first one is just unnecessarily silly.

In order:

comment b)

A manor is a kind of house. A manner is....not a kind of house. There may well be an etymological relationship between the two words, since a manor is a rich persons house, who is likely to have good manners. Who can know how it happened. All we can be sure of is that eating with the correct fork does not mean you have a nice house; I know, I've tried it.

Impact is a verb and a noun. No further discussion is necessary. We all harbour a seething and bitter rage against people who say "I want to impact the market with maximum force", but it's not really different to all the other nouns in English that are verbs too, or the other way around or whatever way it happened (head, surf, show, zone).

COMMENT c)

beg the question *does* mean "request the question". That's the ****** point. you ask the question to answer itself. you ask what you're asking to provide its own answer. What would you beg a question for if not an answer?

COMMENT d)

what the hell is the non-technical meaning of paradigm? What the hell was Thomas Kuhn talking about except what he was talking about?
What are you talking about? Thomas Kuhn .... or you? the latter I'll warrant.

Paradigm. Shift. A shift in the ******* paradigm. Not merely a movement of the paradigm, but a shift, so that it maintains its orientation, but is displaced. Like ....the ****** history of science. What the **** is ambiguous about that? I just have no clue what you are talking about.

COMMENT e)

If you deny the premises ..... you can't ******* argue from them you utter **** so you can't draw a ******* conclusion!!!

COMMENT g)

yes that's right let's all pepper our speech with Latin phrases no one's ever heard before. No one will think we're a total **** at all !!!!! And: "due to the huge number of English phrases with beg in them". Right. I'll refrain from using the phrase "dogging the witness" because of the astronomical number of common English phrases with the word "dog" in them. You ****.

h)

Impact is a verb you smug ****

i)

the most pretentious use of language I can think of is the use of the word "quite" to mean "very".

The guy who write the article is a copy editor. He is referring to people who write for a living, not **** **** like you have have us all reaching for a pistol as the grinding gears of allied tanks approach the nazi bunker of western civilization.

note: the pistol, artillery and nazi bunker in the preceding sentence were metaphorical. Western civilization played itself. I don't own a pistol, I'm not a nazi (or a communist) and I don't have a bunker. You ****.


here's my email address since I appreciate that profanity, even in cases where it doesn't exist, is unacceptable.

I agree with some of what commenter My God so eloquently points out. For example, when he says, I just have no clue what you are talking about, I ******* believe him.

Point to Bucky!

People who think that they know everything are very annoying to those of us who actually do.

Point to RayRay as well!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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