Are You Begging the Question?

Vic Bucens
(Terminology Update, Volume 29, Number 2, 1996, page 18)

As most reference books explain, the correct meaning of the expression to beg the question is to assume an unproved point because it supports your argument. Fowler, in his inimitable style, puts it thus: "The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself."

The following statements are examples of begging the question:

  • He can’t be a policeman, because policemen always wear uniforms.
  • Parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel.
  • Capital punishment is necessary because without it murders would increase.

Frequently, the phrase is loosely used as if it meant "to avoid a direct answer to a question." Although one of the meanings of to beg is indeed "to avoid" or "to evade," we are dealing with a set expression here whose meaning cannot be modified. While a few authorities accept the extended use of to beg the question (the Collins Concise Dictionary is one), most do not. The Concise Oxford lists it as a "popular" usage.

To confound the matter further, one comes across another departure from the linguistic straight and narrow, where to beg the question is used as if it meant "to call for (a question to be asked)" perhaps by association with the usual meaning of "to beg."

To avoid ending up with what Fowler calls a "misapprehension," one should use this idiomatic expression with care or, if unsure, avoid it altogether.

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