Saturday, November 27, 2010

I'll beg your pardon…but not the question

Now that Thanksgiving has been reduced to a pleasant memory and some leftovers in the refrigerator, it's the time of year when the Word Crank gets in touch with her inner Scrooge. I'll wait until well into Advent to put up Christmas decorations, and, yes, I'll have had my fill of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Blue Christmas" well before that point. However, as my gift to you, faithful readers*, I promise not to grumble about Yule mania.

Instead I intend to say "bah, humbug" about some other pet peeves. I have quite a menagerie of them, but, in the spirit of the season, I'll only trot out a few for your inspection. Today's grump is the oft-heard phrase "beg the question." I just heard a news report about a study identifying the places in the world where people are the happiest—Singapore and some place in northern Sweden, apparently. So the anchorwoman says to the guest "That begs the question of why."

Not really. What she meant was "That raises the question…" That is what virtually everyone who uses the phrase "begs the question" really means. So that raises the question "Why are they begging rather than raising questions?"

My theory: somewhere, sometime, someone heard a debate in which one of the participants accused his opponent of begging the question. The anonymous auditor must have liked the sound of the phrase, without actually understanding it, and went forth and erroneously "begged the question" all over the countryside. Soon we were all doing it.

Cut it out! Avoid this phrase unless you are using it correctly to mean a logical fallacy in which the question (or issue in argument) is assumed true by the argument presented or is sidestepped altogether by the argument.

I don't know about you, but I rarely need to point out this particular error. (On the other hand, I find many opportunities to exclaim "That's a non sequitur!") So let's swear off all this begging, unless you have a red kettle and are ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.

*To date, my blog has received more than 1,500 page views. Wow. Many thanks for joining me in this linguistic adventure. It has been such fun!


  1. May I beg to differ? Or is that out of the question also?

  2. As long as you're not begging to differ with ME!