“TEACHER, WHAT IS BEGGING THE QUESTION? And please don’t set fire to my paper”


On Facebook this morning, I spotted a post by State Senator Jeff Danielson reacting to Iowa’s third state university presidential resignation in a very short time.  He caught my attention immediately with, “But it begs the question, why are we continuing to have to do this?  Unprecedented turnover at three well respected higher education institutions….”

No, Senator Danielson; It does not “beg the question.”  Maybe it “raises the question,” or maybe it “makes you wonder.”  Maybe it even makes you want to “ask the question.”   But most certainly, it does not “beg the question.”  How many ways can I say it?  THAT’S JUST WRONG, AND IT MAKES ME WANT TO SCREAM!

The English language amazes me.  It changes, and it changes a lot.  Constantly.  One of the most fascinating changes takes place in vocabulary.  In months the accepted meaning or connotation of a word can shift, sometimes as a result of deliberate action.

For instance, the word “gay” once carried the meaning “carefree” or “happy.”  At some point, possibly fifty to sixty years ago, it developed into a slang term to refer to a homosexual man, and it carried intensely negative connotations.  It was used only as an insult.  At some point, the people being insulted took possession of the word and began to use it as a personal label and expression of pride.  By the twenty-first century, “gay” has become an accepted part of the language, and the negative connotation has pretty much disappeared.  Language changes that way, and the process is constant.

Other times the changes happen out of sheer carelessness on the part of speakers, and many of them are practically lost causes to those of us who care.   “Unique” and “enormity” come to mind.  Strictly speaking, “unique” means one of a kind, the only one.  Lately, though, anyone good looking enough to hold a job as a television news reader says it when she wants to describe something a little unusual.  It annoys the heck out of me, but it’s inevitable.  People hear it on television, and they assume it’s acceptable.
The second example, “Enormity,” has always referred to something extremely evil or depraved.  Outrageous and horrifying would be synonyms.  The word was once reserved for situations like “the enormity of Hitler’s holocaust.”  Today, however, “enormity” has degenerated to the point where you hear it used to indicate nothing more than large size.  Television reporters will be heard referring to “The enormity of Cedar Falls’ Sturgis Falls Celebration.”
It pains me to see the language evolving in so many ways that weaken its power to express specific ideas.   At the same time, I’m consoled by the fact that these are just individual words, and they are regularly replaced by new terms that will probably meet our needs.  Like it or not, the language has always and will always change.
This new use of “Begging the Question,” however, is a different kind of change.  It arises not from social pressures or even laziness.  It results from an unfamiliarity with the history of the term.  If you’re not certain what BTQ means, don’t feel too bad.  Just don’t use the  phrase.  If you are truly interested in studying formal logic, there are lots of texts available, but a short example might suffice.
BTQ describes a common error in logical reasoning.  The writer assumes what he  pretends to prove.  It is circular reasoning like, “Women should not be allowed to join male-only clubs because the clubs are not intended for women.”  It totally ignores, “begs,” the question of why some clubs should be reserved exclusively for male membership.
For some reason though, the term has come into use in the sense of “That brings up the question,” or “He asks the question,” or even “That make me wonder about.”  People say “That begs the question,” when all they mean is “That make me want to ask.”
The problem is that a very meaningful and specialized term with a 500 year history of  pointing out a special kind of logical error has been debased.  The whole concept, a whole process of reasoning, is being lost; and there is nothing that replaces it adequately.
It has gotten so bad that some sources have actually begun to recognize the abomination as allowable.  When I Googled the term, I found this. Google actually gave three definitions, and the first two are clearly misuse.
Beg the Question
1. (of a fact or action) raise a question or point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question.
2. avoid the question; evade the issue.
3.assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it.
 Begging the question is circular reasoning. No more and no less. Use the phrase only to point out circular reasoning.  If the object of your attention is anything else, stick with “brings up the question,” or “raises the question,” or “makes me wonder.”


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