One of my fellow Lutheran homeschooling blogger moms (boy, that's a mouthful) recently wrote a post on what she called "grammar Nazis." Okay, I admit it--I tend to be one of those. I blame it on too many years of teaching English. And maybe just a wee bit of obsessive compulsiveness. But please understand--I don't pick on people's casual conversation (when it comes to speaking extemporaneously I can hardly string five words together without using a verbal crutch or saying something incomprehensible) and I don't pick on everyday communication (there are different rules for that). It just seems to me that when someone is writing for publication or spending huge sums to buy advertising space or getting paid big bucks to make sense on television, he or she ought to be able to use the language correctly (or be smart enough to pay a good proofreader or copywriter).
Anyway, I was watching one of the talking heads on Fox News yesterday (at least as much as I can watch when I'm trying to get dressed and groomed for the day and there's a three-year-old running around the bedroom) when I heard yet again a phrase that I have noticed getting misused a lot these days: "begging the question." In classical rhetoric, to "beg the question" means to assume without proof the truth of the very conclusion one is trying to argue. It is a logical fallacy and is similar to circular reasoning because what it essentially does is to take the argument in circles, relying on synonyms and re-assertions rather than actual proof. Here are a few examples:
"You can believe me because I don't tell lies."
"Capital punishment is wrong because it's murder."
"All respected scientists believe in global warming."
In each of these sentences the desired conclusion is presented as its own premise. This is fairly obvious in the first two examples, especially if we restate them as follows:
"You can believe me because you can believe me."
"Capital punishment is wrong because it's wrong." (Murder is by definition wrong, so to say that capital punishment is wrong because it's murder is equivalent to saying it's wrong because it's wrong. The real question, which is being avoided, is whether capital punishment fits the definition of murder.)
The trick in the third example is more subtle, but careful consideration reveals a form of circularity because the definition of "respected scientist" is assumed to be one who believes in the very thing that is being promoted.
The problem with all of these is that premises of arguments need to be supported by evidence unless they are assumptions that everyone can accept as truth. So to use a conclusion as its own premise "begs the question" by taking that conclusion (the question that is being debated but that has not yet been proven) for granted--assigning it truth which it has not earned (thus the word "begging"). (This is a difficult concept, but it helps me to imagine a plaintive little premise begging a confident-looking conclusion for acceptance into the proven conclusion club. If I had an ounce of artistic talent I think I could make the picture in my head into a great cartoon!)
"Begging the question," then, really has nothing to do with asking a question. Yet that's what everyone on television these days seems to think. I constantly--well, perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement--I frequently hear people use the phrase "begs the question" to mean "asks the question" or "makes one ask" or "makes one wonder." The particular exchange I heard on Fox News was a discussion of the poor parenting skills of Britney Spears and Rosie O'Donnell. (In case you missed out on this breathtakingly consequential story, Britney got in trouble some time ago for driving her car with her baby in her lap; Rosie is getting grief right now for putting a video on her blog of her 4-year-old dressed up like a terrorist.) The commentator or anchor (I don't remember which) was comparing Rosie and Britney and said something along the lines of, "We know Britney was negligent in driving a car with a baby in her lap, but that begs the question of whether her behavior rises to the level of intentional exploitation that we are seeing with Rosie." The phrase "begs the question" simply makes no sense in that sentence if you try to apply the correct definition of the term.
So this is the sort of thing that keeps me up past midnight blogging. Hmmm, maybe I need to expand my horizons a bit. On the other hand, if this post resonated with you or if you simply enjoyed it, let me know and I might consider making it a regular feature, complete with submissions from readers (thanks, elephantschild, for the idea).
Update, June 28, 2010: The Wikipedia article on begging the question identifies the incorrect usage of the phrase outlined here as a "modern usage" that many now accept as correct. I guess I'm more of a prescriptive than a descriptive grammarian, because I disagree. "Begging the question" is a rhetorical term with a precise definition that ought to be respected.