Category Archives: Logical Fallacies

Won’t You Ask, Please?

It’s one of the sad realities of being an English teacher that no one asks us permission to change the language that we love. Apparently, at some point in the last few years, the phrase “begging the question” has had its meaning changed from what was proper to it into modern sloppiness. Count this article as the work of a well-armed usage sheriff riding in to restore order.

The phrase originally referred to a fallacy that in Latin is called petitio principii. Here’s an example of the error in reasoning:

The change in usage is acceptable because we must tolerate changes in language.

This is otherwise known as circular reasoning. The reason given to support the conclusion is exactly the thing being argued. “Believe me because I can be believed” may work in situations when a leap of faith is appropriate, but not in logic. This is easy to spot when we aren’t emotionally involved, but take a case from recent political debates:

We must not bring the terrorists from Guantanamo to the United States for trial.

This is begging the question because the person making the argument presumes that the prisoner is a terrorist, while that status is exactly what is in question. This kind of fallacy shows up in cases like this when the argument seems obvious and the arguers believe their positions without doubt.

That’s the fallacy and what is wrong with it in reasoning. Now consider how the phrase, “begging the question,” is misused:

The blownout well in the Gulf of Mexico begs the question about whether we ought to allow deep water drilling.

In that sentence, the phrase is being used to mean that the disaster forces us to ask questions about our policy, but that is incorrect. The proper verb there would be raises. Now that you know, will you please, please, please use “begs the question” correctly?