June 15, 2008

I beg to differ

The phrase "begs the question" is so increasingly misused these days that even I recently caught myself using it, and had to self-edit mid-sentence to say "leads us to the question."

To beg the question is not, as I myself almost mistakenly put it, to ask the question that logically follows from what we now know. Now, it is true that the use of "begs the question" to mean "leads to the question" is now so common that some dictionaries recognize it. But I side with Bryan A. Garner, who writes in Garner's Modern American Usage, "Though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it sloppy."

"Begging the question" doesn't mean to evade an issue, either. The phrase that's wanted when you avoid answering a question is "beg off," which is to say, ask to be excused.

To beg the question, as I well know from my philosophy classes lo these many years ago, is to engage in circular reasoning. In other words, to draw a conclusion that merely restates the original statement.

For example, we know that the Harry Potter books are massively popular.

This leads us to the question, "why?"

Some may beg off this question, because popularity is so difficult to explain.

And the one who says "Harry Potter books are massively popular because lots of people are reading them" merely begs the question.

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