Sunday, January 23, 2005

Begging, and questions

The expression "to beg the question" does not refer to a follow-up question that is required given an unsatisfactory reply to the original question. It is a debating term in which the question is the issue under discussion, and you beg it by taking for granted the very thing you are trying to prove, as part of your proof.

That said, no dictionary on Earth appears capable of a decent example of such a construction, and it could be argued that the "follow-up question" usage has the advantage of describing something that actually needs a description.

For example, suggests

Shopping now for a dress to wear to the ceremony is really begging the question - she hasn't been invited yet.

Collins English Dictionary merely defines the phrase as

(a) to evade the issue. (b) to assume the thing under examination as proved.

Those are neat definitions, but when would you actually assume the thing under examination as proved?

Another example might be the case where someone objects to same-sex relationships, then when asked why, says because it's wrong. There, the question is the wrongness or otherwise of such relationships. To use their wrongness as an argument is begging the question, because it's a circular argument that is only true so long as it's already true.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.
I like your idea that typos are not as much a problem, since we all make mistakes out of carelessness and lack of focus.
However, the lower level ignoramus type of errors raise the nitpicker hackles on me as well. For example the "your vs. you're" confusion, and the "loose for lose" stupidity. Some of these are so rampant that it might actually be accepted by some as a real change in the language.

Phantom Nitpicker said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

You're quite right about sloppy usage entering the language. The entry continues with:

This phrase, whose roots are in Aristotle's writings on logic, came into English in the late 1500s. In the 1990s, however, people sometimes used the phrase as a synonym of "ask the question" (as in The article begs the question: "What are we afraid of?").Now that is even worse than I thought. It doesn't even mean "the answer just begs for another perhaps deeper question", which has at least some logic to it and is arguably a useful way of describing something specific. After three hundred years of use, suddenly everyone just gives up and starts using beg to mean ask.

And don't get me started on disinterested or momentarily...

The Phantom

Flado said...

Thank you! I've been trying to derive the meaning of this phrase from context since a long time. Now I know why I never stood a chance. I'm only glad I never bothered to look it up, for that would have been a waste of time.
And I just cannot resist the temptation: you're missing a space after the full stop in
"What are we afraid of?").Now that is even worse than I thought

(not a native English speaker, so please be easy on me)