Beggars Can Be Choosers

Questioning the questions

Every so often it’s important to revisit an issue, to clarify or modify it, depending on the circumstances. It “begs the question” whether revisiting something is needed. After all, revisiting is important, because it allows revisiting, which is important. And if it’s not important, it “begs the question,” why ask about revisiting at all?

There. All three uses of “beg the question” in one place. Should be clear now, yes?

Didn’t think so.

“Begs the question” is one of those tricky expressions that have changed meaning over the years, and are in the midst of settling into one “proper” usage or another.

As Evan Jenkins wrote here a number of years ago, “One form of begging the question is circular reasoning—basing two conclusions on each other, A proving A: The editor must be right because editors don’t make mistakes.” It’s assuming the truth of the argument from the argument itself. Children often “beg the question” by saying, “I know I’m right, because I’m right!”

That sense of “begs the question” has nothing to do with questions: It is derived from the Latin “petitio principii,” which, roughly translated, means, “assuming the beginning of the argument as the argument.” That usage of “beg the question” in English traces at least to the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some sources say it goes to the fourteenth century.

But, probably because it has two familiar words in it, “begs” and “question,” almost no one but sticklers and philosophers use it that way.

More often, “beg the question” is used in the sense of “avoid the question,” or evade the issue at hand. An article about an appeals court decision on a settlement concerning mortgage fraud quoted a lawyer as saying the decision “begs the question of whether these judges paid any attention to the role both institutions played in the recent financial crisis.” In other words, the ruling avoided the issue of the institutions’ responsibilities.

That usage of “begs the question” has reached Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index in Garner’s Modern American Usage, the etiquette equivalent, it says, of “Overloud talking.”

Even more often, “beg the question” is used as “pose the question,” as in this about the missing views of a candidate for public office: “This all begs the question: Where’s Hayden?” In nearly every case, “begs the question” is immediately followed by the question being begged.

That usage of “begs the question,” to actually ask the question, is at Stage 4 of the Language-Change Index - the equivalent of “Elbows on the table.” And who doesn’t do that, except in the most formal of contexts?

The challenge is to make sure your readers know which way you’re using “beg the question,” in order to avoid confusion.

The Associated Press Stylebook does not mention “beg the question,” though the “Ask the Editor” section of the online stylebook kind of wimps out on the question, saying only: “The term has gradually taken on several meanings since its origin in ancient Greek philosophy. Check Webster’s for a couple of definitions.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage calls for its traditional usage for a circular argument but warns, “The phrase is so often used loosely that it is likely to be misunderstood.”

Except if it is used loosely so often, does it make any sense to favor the usage that’s more likely to be misunderstood?

Let’s beg off of asking that question.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,