One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.
First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.
Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.
These arguments are fallacious because you can’t use an argument to prove itself. Whatever premise you’re using to support or validate your case has to be independently proven – it can’t amount to the same thing as the argument itself. Mark Liberman, in a great post at Language Log, puts it this way:
‘assuming the conclusion’ is not a fallacy in the sense that the form of argument involved is invalid. The cases that are condemned as petitio principii pretend to reason from accepted premises to a novel conclusion, while actually smuggling a disguised form of the conclusion into the argument’s assumptions.
That’s what beg the question has traditionally meant. To see what else it can mean, and whether these other meanings are acceptable, good modern dictionaries are the best place to start.
Dictionaries include the two main senses (raise the question; assume the conclusion in the premise), and some also include the third (evade the question): see Oxford, American Heritage, Macmillan, Merriam-Webster, Collins, and Cambridge. None marks the newer senses as non-standard; indeed, the AHD includes a usage note that predicts they will ‘probably continue to flourish’.
Beg the question first appeared in English in a 1581 text of Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, and this translation has had semantic ripples down the centuries. The phrase is opaque because its use of beg is really not a good fit – it’s no wonder people have interpreted it ‘wrongly’. Had the original English translation been assume the conclusion or take the conclusion for granted instead of beg the question, there would be far less uncertainty and vexation.
Contemporary usage shows the extent of what critics call ‘misuse’. When I see beg the question in my general reading, it nearly always means raise the question – the technical use is rare, especially outside of scholarly contexts. Curious about other people’s experience, I asked about it on Twitter, omitting the evade the question sense for space and simplicity’s sake:
Jonathon Owen, James Callan and Tom Freeman confirmed my impression, saying they saw it used to mean raise the question about 90%, 95% and 96.5% times, respectively. The traditional use was approximated at 0.1% and 0.5%. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, told me she looked at a lot of examples when researching the phrase for a book, and found no cases of the traditional use.
Next I searched for beg* the question on GloWbE, a modern corpus of 1.9 billion words from websites in 20 English-speaking countries. It offered a range of grammatical contexts: begs (3051), beg (501), begging (398) and begged (87) the question. I looked at 300 examples of the most popular construction, which seemed a fair way to gauge patterns in contemporary use in different registers and populations.
The results were telling. Eight out of 300 were not uses but mentions:
1 in a review of a writing book on Goodreads
1 from a university writing centre explaining the fallacy
2 on a website dedicated to criticising the common usage
2 from commenters complaining about it on a Dictionary.com blog post
2 from commenters complaining about it on a Daily Writing Tips blog post
Twenty-three were traditional philosophical uses:
1 in a juridical transcript
1 in a philosophical essay on econlib.org
1 in a philosophical essay on optimal.org
1 in a philosophical post in Discover magazine
1 in a philosophical essay on a Leadership University page
1 in a philosophical essay (by Daniel Dennett) on a Tufts University page
1 in a book review on an economic philosophy website
1 in a comment on scienceblogs.com
1 in a comment at Scientific American
1 in a comment on an ABC News story
1 (by Hilary Clinton) in a transcript on NPR
1 in a letter to Commentary magazine in 1979
1 in a philosophy-of-religion blog post
1 in a comment on the above post
2 in comments on a libertarian web page
2 in philosophical essays in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
2 on religious websites, one of which deemed it necessary to explain the phrase
3 in a single comment on a theosophy blog
269 out of 300 examples of begs the question used it to mean raises the question, more or less. That’s 90%. This figure show its huge predominance in contemporary discourse. Outside of formal debates and philosophical or semi-philosophical contexts, the traditional meaning of beg the question is hardly ever used. The evade the question use is rarer still.
This is why insisting on the original use, as prescriptivists do, risks confusing many readers. It’s not a practical or constructive stance. Correctness changes with sufficient usage, yet sticklers still refuse to accept there can be more than one way to use this phrase. By adopting the tenets of one phrase → one meaning and original meaning = true meaning, they have painted themselves into a corner.
The disparity between what is prescribed and what is done leads to awkward inconsistencies. Publisher style guides insist on the niche, rarefied use of the phrase while their writers use it in the more common way regardless. The Economist style guide says: ‘Beg the question means neither raise the question, invite the question nor evade the answer.’ But counter-examples here and here (since changed) suggest not only that some Economist writers are unaware of or indifferent to the shibboleth, but that some of its copy editors are too.
The Guardian style guide says beg the question is ‘almost invariably misused’ and that the original sense is ‘being lost, which seems a sad fate for a phrase that might be useful or even – in a logical or philosophical context – essential’. But this is unduly pessimistic. Anywhere the esoteric sense is essential, it will be retained, as my corpus search suggests.
Philosopher Matthew McKeever told me he ‘very seldom’ sees the traditional sense outside of philosophy and never sees the raise the question sense in it. His search of philosophy papers supports this. Words and phrases often fork semantically, with a specialist sense retained in specialist contexts and a different sense emerging in general use. This is nothing to lament – and any claims of ambiguity and confusion require real-life evidence, not worries and sentiment.
The Guardian has been agonising over the phrase for a while. In 1999 readers’ editor Ian Mayes found that its use in the newspaper was ‘very rarely’ the original one. A decade later David Marsh wrote that in 35+ years in journalism he could recall just one occasion when beg the question referred to the logical fallacy – the writer was a philosopher – and in 33 of the last 33 it meant raise the question.
Which raises the question why the style guide – or any guide outside of philosophical or similar domains – persists in outlawing the overwhelmingly popular usage. Is polysemy so anathema?
It’s a similar story in the US. The New York Times’ usage and style blog After Deadline flags the phrase’s ‘misuse’ again and again. Admitting a ‘losing battle’, it still ‘refuse[s] to surrender’ the point.
This stubbornness may incorporate a concern that accepting the newer senses means forsaking or devaluing the old, but it doesn’t: it just makes publishers look intransigent, inconsistent, and sceptical of readers’ flexibility and language’s complexity and versatility.
And it’s not a losing battle: it’s lost.
And battle is the wrong metaphor.
The evade the question sense seems to have more support from usage authorities than the raise the question one. This may be because it’s older and semantically closer to petitio principii – by assuming the conclusion in the premise, one evades the question. But this sense is rare, while the raise the question sense is almost ubiquitous and surely destined for standard status.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says it is not surprising
that many people, untrained in the finer points of logical argument, apply the phrase beg the question to the obvious result – dodging the issue – without worrying about the manner in which the dodging was accomplished. And the result of these people’s use of the phrase is a new meaning of beg that the lexicographers must account for: ‘to evade, sidestep.’
It cites examples from books and reputable publications like Atlantic and Time begging the question(s), the difficulties, and the point, meaning essentially ‘to dodge or sidestep the issue’, and says this usage is ‘fully established as standard’ – a conclusion contested by Bryan Garner and other traditionalists.
In his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Garner rejects the common usage as a mistake and says people using it in the evade sense misapprehend its meaning. But Garner and the other prescriptivist critics are themselves begging the question. They assume the phrase has a single meaning, the one they prefer, when it demonstrably has multiple meanings. If you doubt this, consult any good dictionary.
The conservative group in this case includes Dinosaur Comics, if we can take the mouseover text (Down with descriptivists in this one particular instance) at face value, which is by no means certain. Click to enlarge:
So how should we use beg the question if, as Michael Quinion says, no two authorities fully agree on which senses are acceptable (or even on the nature of the problem)?
Using it to mean raise or evade the question will bother some pedants and learned readers, but is theirs a legitimate grievance given the huge proportion of people using it to mean raise the question? Using it to mean assume the conclusion will puzzle many readers, unless you’re writing in a philosophical context or are sure of your audience.
The expression is ‘skunked’, to use Garner’s term. Grammarphobia agrees that it’s ‘virtually useless’, and Mark Liberman recommends avoiding it altogether. In formal use I advise caution for this reason, but in everyday use you’ll encounter little or no difficulty or criticism with the raise the question usage.
Eventually the contention may abate enough that the phrase can be used in edited prose without annoying, confounding, or distracting a significant number of readers. Until then each writer must decide for themself based on context, audience, and taste.
Merriam-Webster’s Words At Play has an extended usage note on beg the question, citing this post in its helpful overview of the different senses and their status.