"Begging the question": we have answers

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Macy Halford, of The Book Bench at the New Yorker, wrote to me with a question about "begs the question":

Recently, one of our posts caused quite a stir by misusing the phrase (to mean “raises the question”), and many discussions ensued, the result of which was that we all realized that even though we (kind of) understand the phrase in the Latin, we really don’t understand, etymologically, the English translation—either “begs the question” or “petitions for the principle,” though the latter makes more sense. And we all wondered whether the Latin was used only in the context of formalized debate or argument. It seems like a fairly complex concept, with a complex definition—it makes me wonder why we use or misuse it at all, since the need to use it in everyday speech (or blogging) would seem not very great.

(FWIW, the offending post was apparently this one, with the original "this begs questions like …" quickly amended to "this raises questions like…")

There are four related issues here. First, how did "begging the question" come to be a technical term for (a certain kind of) circular reasoning? Second, do people really need a way to talk about circular reasoning, anyway? Third, why did "begging the question" get re-purposed in common usage to mean "dodging the question" or "raising the question", rather than simply subsiding, along with the rest of the terminology of medieval logic, into the midden heap of obsolete idioms? And fourth, should you go with the flow and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question", or should you fight for the traditional usage, or what? I'll take up these issues one at a time.


1. The history of "beg the question" — a cavalcade of misleading translations — starts with Aristotle's straightforward presentation of a simple idea. In On Sophistical Refutations, he specified thirteen fallacies, one of which (in the translation by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge) is "assuming the original conclusion". This amounts to arguing that "P, therefore P"; and Aristotle gives various simple examples of how such arguments can be disguised so as to appear persuasive.

There are some subtle logical and epistemological questions lurking in the background here, but the basic idea is not exactly deep or difficult. So how did Aristotle's simple "assuming the conclusion" turn into the opaque phrase "begging the question"?

The wrong turns started with the translation from Greek to Latin.

According to Scott Gregory Schreiber, Aristotle on false reasoning, SUNY Press, 2003 (p. 214)

Aristotle uses as labels for this fallacy τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν. Literally these would be rendered as "asking the original point" and "assuming the original point."

Liddell and Scott gloss αἰτ-έω as "A. 1. ask, beg; 2. ask for, demand; 3. ask one to do; 4. beg of; 5. in Logic, postulate, assume", suggesting that "postulating" might be a better translation than "asking". And for λαμβάνω they have "I. take, 1. take hold of, grasp, seize; … II. receive, 1. have given one", which in Aristotle's use seems to be like the English take of "I take it that …".

So in both forms of the phrase, Aristotle was talking about arguments that assume or postulate the original point to be proved, in some indirect or disguised form.

Some medieval translator (does anyone know who?) decided to translate Aristotle's "assuming the conclusion" into petitio principii. In classical Latin, petitio meant "an attack, a blow; a requesting, beseeching; a request, petition". But in post-classical Latin petitio was also used to mean "a postulate", in the logical sense of "a fundamental principle to be used as a basis for reasoning", and in particular, it was used as a translation of Aristotle's αἰτεσθαι, to mean something like "postulating". And principium meant "a beginning, commencement, origin" — here translating Aristotle's ἐν ἀρχῇ, and means something like "the start of the argument", or "the original point".

From the 14th century onwards, many writers in English used the Latin term to discuss this rhetorical technique, which remained a very simple and straightforward idea behind its Latin label. Thus Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica (1658):

Other waies there are of deceit, which consist not in false apprehension of words, that is, verbal expressions of sentential significations, but fraudulent deductions, or inconsequent illations, from a false conception of things. […]

The first is Petitio principii. Which fallacie is commited, when a question is made a medium, or we assume a medium as granted, whereof we remain as unsatisfied as of the question. Briefly, where that is assumed as a principle, to prove another thing, which is not conceded as true it self.

Or from T. H. Green's General Introduction to Vol. I of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature:

68. The relation of cause and effect, according to Locke's general statement as to relation, must be something 'not contained in the real existence of things, but extraneous and superinduced.' […]

Thus not only does the datum of the process of 'invention' in question, i.e. the observation of change in a thing, involved a derived idea, but a derived idea which presupposes just this process of invention.

Here again it is necessary to guard against the notion that Locke's obvious petitio principii might be avoided by a better statement without essential change in his doctrine of ideas.

But starting in the late 16th century, the English phrase "to beg the question" began to sneak into use as an vulgar alternative to petitio principii. The OED's citation list:

1581 W. CLARKE in Confer. IV. (1584) Ffiij, I say this is still to begge the question. 1687 SETTLE Refl. Dryden 13 Here hee's at his old way of Begging the meaning. 1680 BURNET Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question. 1788 REID Aristotle's Log. v. §3. 118 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises. 1852 ROGERS Ecl. Faith 251 Many say it is begging the point in dispute. 1870 BOWEN Logic ix. 294 The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question.

Why begging the question? Well, petitio (from peto) in this context means "assuming" or "postulating", but it has other (and older) meanings, from which the notion of logical postulate or assumption arose: "requesting, beseeching". So rather than use some fancy Latinate term like postulate or assume, people decided to use the plain English word beg[ging] as a sort of calque for the "requesting" sense of petitio.   But even in the 16th century, I think, it was a bit odd to warn people against presupposing the end-point of their argument by telling them not to beg their conclusion.

And why begging the question? The OED's first glosses for question are "A point or topic to be investigated or discussed; a problem, or a matter forming the basis of a problem", and "A subject or proposal to be debated, decided, or voted on in a meeting or deliberative assembly". With these meanings, question more or less fits into Aristotle's warning — it's wrong to "assume the question", i.e. to make an argument that presupposes (our conclusion about) the proposal to be decided. But these days, the word question is much more likely to mean "A sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information from a person; a query, an enquiry." And in this sense, warning someone not to assume the question either means something quite different (say, not to jump to conclusions about what is being asked), or else it makes no sense at all.


2. OK, "begging the the question" is a piss-poor way to say "assuming the conclusion"; But should we continue to care enough about circular arguments to have a shorthand way to refer to them?

First, an aside: circular arguments are not necessarily false arguments. The proposition "A → A" is always true, though not very interesting. And a proposition like "A → B → C → A" may be a perfectly valid and useful argument, for example as a way to show that A, B, and C are all equivalent.

So "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. Does this actually happen in real life, as opposed to mathematical logic or formal debating?

Well, people certainly think it does. Here's Paul Krugman, a couple of weeks ago, writing about "assuming the conclusion":

As predicted, many of the comments to my Austrian economics post are of the form “Well, of course employment rises when investment is expanding, and falls when the investment is falling — in the first case the economy is booming while in the second it’s slumping.”

As I tried to explain, however, that’s assuming the conclusion; there’s no “of course” about it. Why do periods when the economy is investing more correspond to booms, while periods when it’s investing less correspond to slumps? That’s easy to understand in Keynesian terms — but the whole Austrian claim is that they’re an alternative to Keynesianism. Yet I have never seen a clear explanation of this central point.

And the phrase "circular argument" is fairly common in the news, e.g. in this piece:

I’ve come to call this thoroughly circular argument for Easter’s significance the “Presence Principle.” It implies, in a way that my intellect resists but my heart is willing to entertain, that the terrific annual to-do involving lilies, hymns and dexterous rabbits is, just by virtue of its continued existence, not an absurd, unwarranted phenomenon. A celebration, by my old priest’s reasoning, means that its celebrants must have something to celebrate, and the bigger the celebration, the bigger the something.

By a similar form of logic, the concept of a circular argument must be worth writing about, since people often write about it.

(Of course, it's tricky to reconstruct any natural-language argument in fully explicit logical terms, and even trickier to do so in a way that validates an accusation of circularity. But that doesn't stop people from wanting to make the claim.)


3. Even if "assuming the conclusion" is something that people often want to say, "begging the question" is such a confusing way to say it that only a few pedants understand the phrase in this sense any more.

You can see that this is true by looking at how the phrase is used, even in well-edited sources. For example, if we search the NYT index for recent uses of "beg the question", we find that out of the first 20 hits, 15 use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" — and of the five that don't, four are usage articles berating people for misusing the phrase!

Turning to the broader and more erratically edited range of material indexed by Google News, a check of the first 50 of the 127 current hits for "beg the question" turns up 49 instances meaning "raise the question" — and one lonely usage column (June Casagrande, "A Word Please", Kilgore New Herald 4/10/2010), which makes this amazing assertion:

But for me, all this raises a more important question. You see, for all the people I’ve heard bemoaning others’ misuse of “beg the question,” I’ve never actually heard someone misuse it.

So all the friends who told me I should do a column on “begs the question” because the term is so widely misused — well, it looks like those people were begging the beg-the-question question.

In my opinion, however, using "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" is only one notch less weird than using it to mean "assume the conclusions". We don't use beg in other contexts with this meaning: "??I'd like to beg the topic of what to have for dinner". So why isn't "begging the question" languishing on a dusty shelf of lexicographical off-site storage, along with other renaissance translations of medieval latin rhetorical terminology like "affirming the consequent" (which has no current Google News hits at all?)

In addition to striking a note of dignity or formality, "beg the question" sounds as though it ought to be a slightly old-fashioned way to say something that you could get it to mean by extending the meaning of beg just a bit, as often happens in archaic expressions. There's no similarly simple move that turns "affirming the consequent" into something that people are likely to want to say.


4. OK, those of you who are still with me, what should we do? Should we join the herd and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question"? Or should we join the few, proud hold-outs who still use it in the old "assume the conclusion" sense, while complaining about the ignorant rabble who etc.?

In my opinion, those are both bad choices. If you use the phrase to mean "raise the question", some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others' "misuse", you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean "assume the conclusion", almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use "assume the conclusion" or "raise the question", depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.



81 Comments

  1. beamish said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    There's a great two page paper by A.W. Sparkes in the Journal of the History of Ideas (1966) pp. 462-63 that traces the English phrase to the condensation of a sensibly used phrase in Hooker's "The Rest of the Second Reply to M. Doctor Whitgift".

    [(myl) Thanks! For those with JSTOR access, the link is here. For those who don't, here's the meat of the matter:

    In The Rest of the Second Reply to M. Doctor Whitgift (published in 1577, four years before the first of the OED's examples of the phrase, "begging the question"), Thomas Cartwright says:

    As for your often repeating that the ceremonies in question are godly, comely, and decent; it is your old wont of demanding the thing in question, and an undoubted argument of your extreme poverty.

    To this, Hooker replies:

    If we being defendants do answer, that the ceremonies in question are godly, comely, decent, profitable for the Church; their reply is childish and unorderly, to say, that we demand the thing in question, and shew the poverty of our cause, the goodness whereof we are fain to beg that our adversaries would grant.

    This would seem to indicate that the phrase "begging the question" is not metaphorical but arises from a straightforward description of the activity of disputation, of what goes on in "encounters," e.g. in the arguments of the law courts. If an argument is to be successful, the truth of the premisses must be admitted by both sides. When a disputant asserts a premiss, he is, therefore, asking his opponent to grant it to him (cf. "claim"). When he asserts the conclusion as one of his premisses, he is asking his opponent to grant him the truth of the statement whose truth has been questioned: he is "begging the question."

    This account of the phrase 'begging the question" as a literal description of a move in dialogue is perfectly consistent with th importance accorded face-to-face disputation in Aristotle's Athens, in the mediaeval scholia generalia to which we owe the translation of Aristotle's τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεσθαι as petitio principii, and in the Oxford and Cambridge of Thomas Cartwright and Richard Hooker.

    ]

  2. Karen said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    That's an excellent suggestion – that translation is so awful that no one could be expected to know what it meant. I have been know to say we should just say "petition principi" – we don't mind Latin in other fallacies – but considering that, too, is a bad translation, I like your idea better.

  3. Jan Freeman said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    A footnote to "beg the question" is that the almost equally opaque "vicious circle" (of logic) has become "vicious cycle" for (I think) most users. Close enough for newspaper work, I decided some time ago, though surely the sense of "vicious" as "logically defective" has all but vanished.

  4. Chris said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    > In my opinion, however, using "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" is only one notch less weird than using it to mean "assume the conclusions".

    I always took it to mean raising such an obvious question that it's literally begging you to ask it.

    That turns out not to be what it's supposed to mean, but it would be a reasonable enough phrase if that's how it worked.

  5. Anonymous said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    Mark,

    The quote beginning "68. The relation of cause and effect…" is not the work of Hume. It comes from T. H. Green's General Introduction to Vol. I of Hume's Treatise, first published (I believe) in 1874-75.

    [(myl) Oops. I should have seen that. Fixed now…]

  6. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

    But a vicious circle and a vicious cycle are different things! At least, in my naive understanding, the phrase "vicious cycle" might describe something like a deflationary spiral. There's something circular about each, but they're vicious in different ways – the former is vicious because there's no way to get on, and the latter is vicious because there's no way to get off.

  7. Matthew Kehrt said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    A couple of nitpicky points.

    First, in your section 2, you point out that the fallacy under discussion (whatever it is called!) is equivalent to A -> A, which is useless but not generally fallacious. This is not a good formalism however. Of course A -> A is true (well, in most formal logics). The rhetorical fallacy consists of tricking people into believing that A is true, without reason good reasons, and then proving A from it. This is not the same a A -> A, which is only used in the second part of the argument. The real rhetorical trick is getting people to agree with A in the first place.

    At least this is how I see "begging the question" used in rhetorical contexts. From this post, it appears people also use "begging the question" to mean the fallacy of convincing people that if A is true, and from this you can show A is true, then A must be true. This is not A -> A, but (A -> A) -> A, which is widely known as something of a villain in formal logic, as, it if is allowed, it can be used to prove anything.

    (For any logicians in the audience, I am playing fast and loose with with the word "true" here. In rhetoric, "true" has an intuitive meaning of "corresponding to physical reality". In formal logic, however, it can mean different things depending on your philosophy, but a good first approximation is "provable in some system under discussion.")

    Second, I always imagined that "begging the question" was used to mean "raising the question" not because the words actually have those meanings, but that people just knew it was an idiom but didn't know what it meant, and so assumed it meant what it sounded like.

    Third, I try to avoid saying "begs the question" at all, but I'm sure I use it in a logic context from time to time. Thanks for pointing out "affirms the consequent", which I will have to try to remember.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    "Beg the question" falls into the category of Bryan Garner's "skunked terms." From his Modern American Usage:

    When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it's likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. … A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become "skunked."

    For more examples, see here, here, and here.

  9. Mark P said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    I had already reached the conclusion that it's pointless to try to preserve the original meaning, although I kind of like it. My problem is that even though I know the phrase will eventually come to mean exclusively what it's most commonly used to mean, I still cringe when I hear it used that way. Of course I'm still coming to terms with singular data.

    I also happen to think that a lot of political and social arguments today beg the question in either a strong or weak way, and it's fun to point that out.

  10. Mike Aubrey said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    I've always taken the phrase "begging the question" in the sense you've given as of "raising the question" to mean something more like a more abstract form of "in light of issue X, question A is begging to be asked."

    [(myl) So, given an idiomatic lemon, you've made semantic lemonade — as people usually do!]

  11. Randy said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    Fantastic essay; thank you.

    I have long been a proud (but increasingly-frustrated) "hold-out," but then your translation history caused me to re-think that stance and prepare to surrender and take your practical advice to stick to "assume the conclusion" or "raise the question."

    But now Beamish's reply has caused me to re-think that re-thinking.

    Oh dear; I am no better off than I was!

  12. nemryn said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    I've always viewed it as an elision of 'begs [that] the question [be asked]'. Which is probably a backformation of some sort.

  13. Sniffnoy said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

    I agree with Mike Aubrey and Chris, which is why I prefer to expand it as the somewhat stronger "forces the question" instead of "raises the question".

  14. B K said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    Point 4 is the best usage advice I've read in a long time. To it I'd only add the recommendation to seek out others that know the 'circular reasoning' sense and find ways to secretly mock those who use the other sense, especially if they're giving a powerpoint presentation or otherwise trying to appear knowledgeable.

  15. Anonymous said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    Mark,

    Regarding the old 'assumes the conclusion' sense, I think you're wrong to write that "only a few pedants understand the phrase in this sense any more". Among philosophers anyway, the old sense of "begs the question" is part of the family: it's so firmly established and so commonly used that nothing is likely to replace it anytime soon. It's right up there with "equivocation" and "non sequitur": it's here to stay.

    And the terminology is used in different ways, to say things like:

    * This response by Wood simply begs the question.
    * We have simply assumed that qualitative properties are physical properties, which begs the question against the dualist.
    * But then premise (1) is either false or question-begging.

    I've taken these examples from post-2009 philosophy journals. Google Scholar finds 269 uses of the term "question-begging" (which invariably takes the old sense) in 2010 alone. Consequently, I think your recommendation to never use the phrase is spitting in the wind.

    [(myl) My advice was not directed at philosophers, who will certainly also happily continue to use de re vs. de dicto, a posteriori, categorical imperative, and so on. I'll happily use such terminology in their company, for that matter. The question is, what about the population at large, and people who write for them? In that arena, a dominating majority of instances of "beg the question" now mean "raise the question", and most of the rest are meta-discussions attempting (without any significant quantitative impact) to teach people the traditional meaning. For this audience, the phrase in its traditional sense will be almost universally misunderstood.]

  16. octopod said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    I agree that "begging the question" is a skunked phrase, and I'd already switched to "postulate/assume the conclusion" and "raise the question" — as you say, the ambiguity is such that it's no longer a terribly useful phrase outside philosophical circles.

    I am, however, nonplussed to find that "nonplussed" has also undergone such a shift in meaning, because I've never used or heard it used in the new way. Or, perhaps, I have simply misunderstood the speaker's intention every time I've heard it — a distressing thought.

    [(myl) An earlier LL public-service announcement about nonplussed can be found here.]

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Maybe we can split the difference between "begs" and "raises": we can say that something "invites the question". It's close enough to "begs" to satisfy the newcomers, but far enough not to raise the old-timers' hackles.

    [(myl) Invites is good. I like invites in this context.]

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    "Nonplussed" seems a pretty bedraggled word to begin with. I won't miss it when it finally crawls away and dies.

  19. Zwicky Arnold said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    Maybe it was in there someplace, but I didn't see a link back to an earlier discussion of "beg the question", in Mark's 4/18 piece on claimed lexical gaps and lexical profusion in Icelandic, including a comment by möngke and Mark's and my follow-up discussions of uses of the idiom.

  20. KCinDC said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

    We don't use beg in other contexts with this meaning: "??I'd like to beg the topic of what to have for dinner"

    Don't be so sure.

  21. Timothy Martin said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

    My philosophy with this phrase has been to use it "correctly" with people who I know understand it, or people who I can teach the meaning to easily if they don't. At the same time, I use the "new" version where appropriate, because it's easy and already an established phrase. Pedants, meanwhile, will get on your case about anything if they want to, so I don't let them deter me.

  22. Kenny V said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    My own understanding of the phrase "petitio principii" (and I am a Latinist) is somewhat different from what is described here. "peto" means to seek or pursue. a petitio is a pursuit; and to pursue someting abstractly in the context of a discussion is to "argue" something. And I understand "beg" to be a direct translation of that, in the legal sense of the word "beg", like "pleading" a case. And you could translate "principium" as "the starting point."

    "Circular argument" is exactly what is being described by the spatially metaphorical language of "petitio principii"; you start at the starting point, then you circle your way around in pursuit (arguing) the selfsame point.

    I only use the phrase "begging the question" any longer with people who I know understand it; educated friends & family and fellow Classicists. And I no longer "correct" people who use it to mean "raise the question."

  23. Shouting Gorilla Book Blog » Blog Archive » Links said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    […] Liberman answers several interesting questions about the multiple uses of the phrase "begging the question": … First, how did "begging the question" come to be a technical term for (a […]

  24. peter said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    Regarding your question 2:

    There are subject-matter domains where the issue of circular reasoning has been very important. For example, in paleontology, how do we know the ages of the fossils we find? Usually, by the age of the geological layers in which they are found. How do we know the ages of different geological layers? Usually, by the type of fossils found in them. Only by a careful, more granular analysis has this domain been shown not to rely on circular reasoning.

  25. Linkerie « Evolving Thoughts said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 2:34 am

    […] Language Log » “Begging the question”: we have answers: On my greatest peeve… […]

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:51 am

    I distinguish between an intransitive technical usage and a transitive common usage, and can't understand why people think it's a problem. Cf GKP's rants on polysemy.

    [(myl) Um, I don't think that transitive and intransitive mean what you think they do. In all of its uses, "beg the question" is syntactically a combination of a transitive verb with a direct object.]

  27. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Peter Taylor's point is a very good one. I'm a bit of a 'begs the question' traditionalist; I would never dream of using it to mean 'invites the question' and find the expression jarring when used in that sense. But I'm content to seethe in silence. However, I recognise that there isn't really any risk of misunderstanding. 'That begs the question' full stop means what it means. It may not be understood by most people but it won't be misunderstood by them. It just won't make any sense at all.

    [(myl) Surely it counts as misunderstanding if most of the population thinks that what you say doesn't make any sense?]

    'That begs the question of why….' (for example) won't be misunderstood by someone like me.

    As to whether 'begs the question' is an archaic term for all but a few specialists, I didn't grow up surrounded by formal logicians or professional philosophers but I've used it unselfconsciously since my childhood (OK, we're a pretty argumentative family…).

    [(myl) As someone who uses the this phrase in its medieval-logic version without being a philosopher or an intellectual historian, you fall into the category that I described as "the few pedants". The "few" part of this description is not open to question, I think — the phrase is fairly common in the mass media, and roughly 99% of its uses are the kind that make you "seethe in silence", with most of the rest being meta-discussions in writings about usage. And "pedant" seems to me like a plausible description for people who maintain an irrational residue of high culture that almost no one else knows about. If it makes you feel any better, I'm obviously a member of the same category.]

  28. rone said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    I agree, eschewing its use is probably the best course of action. I don't assume that misusers are "dunces", merely "lazy". I've depended on "circular reasoning" instead of "assuming the conclusion".

  29. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    Hey! First time one of my infrequent comments has got the red ink treatment! I'm flattered…. :)

    Let me begin, however, with your comment on Peter Taylor's post: I think it was pretty clear that what he meant by 'transitive' was 'followed by something else' and what he meant by 'intransitive' was 'standing alone'. OK, so that isn't technically accurate but it certainly made sense (to me at least).

    As to my post, well, I think that there is a difference between misunderstanding what someone says and not understanding what someone says. A misunderstanding can have pretty serious knock-on effects on the rest of a conversation. On the other hand, if I don't understand what someone has said to me or if I think that it doesn't make any sense I can ask them (see that? I used singular 'them', so I'm not a complete pedant!) to explain or clarify. It's a different class of thing altogether.

    And am I a pedant (even if not a complete one)? Well, I would query the 'irrational' bit in your working definition. The expression may be the result of iffy translation and it may well be that we would be better off using a different formulation but it's what we (or some of us anyway) have and we find it useful to express a certain idea. We may be a minority (that, as you say, is not in dispute) but there are enough of us around to make it a useful expression to use with each other – and not necessarily in rarified situations. "Hang on, for f**k's sake, that begs the question!" (as I said to a colleague yesterday) ain't exactly hoity-toity talk, is it?

  30. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:41 am

    @ myl. To clarify, what I meant when I said that I query the 'irrational' bit in your defintion of 'pedant' is that I would have no problem being described as a pedant if you were to remove 'irrational' from the definition.

  31. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    But if you were to do so, of course, it wouldn't mean anything like what 'pedant' actually means, so that makes about as much sense as saying that I would have no problem being described as a mass murderer if you were to define 'mass murderer' as someone who helps old ladies across the street. Sheesh, all the attention has short-circuited my brain….

    [(myl) The OED's gloss for pedant seems to me to cover the case accurately: "A person who excessively reveres or parades academic learning or technical knowledge, often without discrimination or practical judgement. Hence also: one who is excessively concerned with accuracy over trifling details of knowledge, or who insists on strict adherence to formal rules or literal meaning."]

  32. Peter Taylor said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    Syntactically, yes, "That begs the question." breaks down as subject-verb-object, but as it's an idiom which doesn't make much sense when broken down into its component parts I had to stop and parse it to work out where the direct object was: intuitively begs-the-question is a single unit for me which has little to do with begging or questions.

  33. MattF said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    I generally consider "begs the question" to be random local verbiage, more or less equivalent to a global "You've made a logical error that I can't quite put my finger on".

  34. Craig K said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    It seems to me that there is another context in which we use the word beg in the sense above, namely when begging someone's pardon—another slightly old-fashioned phrase that has survived to the present day.

  35. Gordon Campbell said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    'Cultivate an attitude of serene detachment'. I think that's great advice – for life in general and especially in regard to most language shibboleths.

    Most writers have more-or-less arbitrary 'rules' they choose to follow. (e.g. don't use ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘raise the question’, don’t use ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, don't use ‘impact’ as a verb if ‘affect’ can do the job). We can follow these 'rules' without wallowing in horror and contempt and superiority whenever someone else chooses not to observe them, and without imagining them to be anything more than stylistic choices.

  36. Mark P said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    I mmight have fallen prey to the recency illusion, but it seems to me that the common use of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" is fairly recent (within the last five years, say?). I notice this most often in TV news reports, and it seems that I notice it fairly often. Once it's in widespread use in the media (many of whose members are reasonably well educated – at least they went to college) that use is essentially established.

    [(myl) There are plenty of "raise the question" examples in earlier hits for "begs the question" in the Google News Archive, e.g. this from The Montreal Gazette of 4/20/1973:

    In crude terms, the government is flush with funds and so can spend them in ways which, apart from meeting social needs, will strengthen its political position. This still begs the question of how it became so flush.

    Or this, from The Day of 4/12/1963:

    Senator Douglas' action begs the question why, if Washington is sincerely interested in steel's problems, the Senate-House Economic Committee didn't initiate its study when the price issue arose last year.

    However, I do see quite a few "assume the conclusion" examples in the hits from the 60s and 70s, so it's quite plausible that there's been a quantitative shift in recent decades.
    ]

  37. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    [(myl) The OED's gloss for pedant seems to me to cover the case accurately: "A person who excessively reveres or parades academic learning or technical knowledge, often without discrimination or practical judgement. Hence also: one who is excessively concerned with accuracy over trifling details of knowledge, or who insists on strict adherence to formal rules or literal meaning."]

    Are you seriously suggesting that anyone who uses the expression 'beg the question' in the 'traditional' sense fits this description?

  38. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    …either that or one of us has the irony detector switched off… :)

  39. annie said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    What a fun way to start the day – article AND the subsequent comments!!

  40. madge said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    I don't understand why it should be ambiguous. When I say "That is begging the question." without saying which question, it should be perfectly clear that I use the idiom in the original sense. "That begs the question if/whether/what/…" (+ question) suggests that the intended meaning is "raises the question".

    [(myl) There are occasionally ambiguous examples, but usually it's easy to tell from context which meaning is meant. The problem is that 99% of the population is unaware of one possible meaning ("assume the conclusion"), while 1% is annoyed by the other possible meaning ("raise the question" or, less often, "evade the question"). This has nothing to do with ambiguity, which is not really relevant to the discussion.]

  41. jc said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    While reading the description of "begs the question" originating as two somewhat dodgy translations, from Greek to Latin to English, I kept thinking of the engrish.com web site. Much of the humor there originates in similar poor translations. Typically someone has taken some text in Chinese or Japanese, looked up the individual characters, found a list of possible English words for each, and picked the wrong translation for at least one character.

    The basic problem for peeving about people's misuse of "begs the question" is that it's an idiomatic technical phrase that isn't part of the speech of most English-speaking people. But it contains three common words and is grammatical, so people try to make sense of it, and have settled on "suggests/raises the question" as the literal meaning. When you criticize them and say that it really means something like "circular reasoning", that makes no sense to them, because that can't be derived from the modern meanings of "beg" or "question".

    If you wanted to be nice, you might explain that it's an old idiom used by logicians, but that wouldn't have much effect, because most people don't want to be logicians, and still wouldn't know how to use it "properly".

    Maybe the thing to do is to accept that the general population will continue to use the phrase with its non-technical, literal meaning. When among other geeks that understand the idiomatic usage, feel free to use it. But face the fact that it's technical jargon that the general population will never understand.

    It's somewhat similar to physicists getting all annoyed that people use "quantum leap" to mean a huge change, which is pretty much the opposite of the physicists' use of "quantum jump" to mean the smallest possible change. They mostly just chuckle at the misuse of the term in the media, but accept that there's no chance that the general public will ever understand the concept.

    A while back, I heard a news report that described a "quantum leap of income", and my first thought was "Their income went up by one cent?" That's the quantum in American money, after all. But I just chuckled, because of course I understood that they didn't mean that.

  42. Lane said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Mark P, I can guarantee you "beg the question" has been common for far longer than 5 years. I'm 34, and the "incorrect" usage was the only one I knew until I took my job at The Economist, which forbids the "raise the question" usage and explains the traditional one as "correct". (I betcha anything we've used it "incorrectly" a few times anyway.)

    The best part of this thread for me is that Ben Zimmer gave me Bryan Garner's word for terms that I just didn't have a clear mental category for: "skunked". I know a lot of people don't know how to use "ironic" in its traditional senses properly, so I just avoid the word myself; I know that any use of "fulsome" will either throw or piss some people off, so I don't use it either; and on and on. And now I have a great umbrella term for those that has helped sharpen my thinking about why I avoid them. Thanks Ben and Bryan Garner. And thanks for the history, Mark.

    My strategy with "Begs the question": I use it to mean "assume the conclusion" in small settings where I'm fairly sure most of my audience knows it, and I delight in the imaginary prospect that maybe just one person will be confused by my writing "This begs the question," full stop. I imagine them saying "But what question? There's no question there!", then Googling the phrase, then finding I'd used this useful and interesting bit of formal logic correctly, and thinking me highly learned.

    In wider settings I just avoid it, to avoid confusing people or using the "raises the question" meaning that I don't like.

  43. Wyrm said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    jc,

    I always understood the popular use of "quantum leap" to mean a discontinuous jump. It isn't a bad metaphor actually.

  44. George said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    @jc: Like you, one of my initial reactions on reading the bit in the main post about the translation missteps that gave us the expression in the first place was to think of Chinglish (my own primary reference point being the 'English' subtitles on some of the pirated DVDs I bought in China). It's a very good comparison.

    But where the rest of what you write is concerned, I simply can't think of it as technical jargon or geek-speak. It's an expression I've used quite unselfconsciouly, in ordinary family conversation, since I was a child. OK, we were middle class (in the British/Irish sense) and 'well educated' but nobody in my immediate family is or was an academic and none of the academics in my extended family work on formal logic, philosophy or the history of ideas. It's just an expression that does a job. I accept that it may no longer do the job as well as it used to and that it certainly doesn't do the job as widely as it used to but it's hardly esoteric.

  45. Samantha said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    Great column, thanks. Confession: I'm still stuck on the whole original "petitio principii" notion and I don't have adequate training in logic. Could someone give me a concrete example of this fallacy (the simpler, the better?) It would be especially great if it was an example like what Aristotle had in mind, something that showed "how such arguments can be disguised so as to appear persuasive." I've read the Wikipedia articles about the fallacy but I still can't wrap my mind around it.

  46. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    When I attended law school (mid-sixties), it seemed as if the entire faculty had met and agreed on "assuming the conclusion" as the way of describing something to which the rhetorical meaning of "begging the question" could attach. We also had — and still have — the adjective "conclusory" to describe arguments that assume the conclusion. Bryan Garner (he of skunked words) has argued that the lawyer's meaning of conclusory is so widespread that it deserves to be included in respectable general-use, though I haven't detected much progress on that front.

    We lawyers really need this jargon, because if practitioners of any profession are prone to thinking they have made a persuasive argument when all they've really done is commit a tautology, it's the lawyers. I do it myself (when all else fails and I have to say SOMETHING). I also accuse the other side of doing it. If nothing else, it keeps the judges on their toes.

  47. E W Gilman said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Thanks for the lucid explanation. Years ago I tried unsuccessfully to find out if the English "beg" was a translation from Latin or Greek. Now I know. My own advice about current use is to forget about it. It is now an established idiom whether we like it or not.

  48. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    I think there is an intermediate sense of 'beg the question'; this was mentioned in a previous post, where quotations were given claiming that it sometimes means 'evade the question'. For instance, if I were to say 'The population of Great Britain is rising rapidly, so clearly some people should be shot', you might reply 'You are begging the question of whether shooting people is an appropriate way to control population'. In this sense it takes a complement (like the newer sense) but still has pejorative overtones (like the older sense); this is, therefore, liable to cause confusion.

    I take it the development is something like this; from meaning 'assume the conclusion at issue' the phrase moves to meaning 'assume something that needs defence'. Once it has taken on this meaning it is already quite close to 'raise the question'; it could be paraphrased as 'raise the question (but not answer it, as one should)'. From here it is an easy step to the simple 'raise' sense. It may sometimes be hard to work out which is intended. In the recent example ('the volcanic expolosion begs the question what Iceland has done for us') it's fairly clear no one was accusing the volcano of arguing fallaciously; but in other cases it may be less clear.

  49. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    "We lawyers really need this jargon, because if practitioners of any profession are prone to thinking they have made a persuasive argument when all they've really done is commit a tautology, it's the lawyers."

    Lawyers are, I think, a special case. Our stock in trade is pointing out logical fallacies in the other side's argument, but we generally lack the vocabulary of formal logic to do it with any precision. So "non sequitur" comes to be shorthand for "an argument that is wrong."

    Ha! I just searched the local jurisprudence for the phrase "beg[s][ging] the question" and checked out the first ten hits (all within the last three or four years). It was used 'incorrectly' eight times; 'correctly' once (with a footnote bemoaning the incorrect usage; and correctly but inaptly once. Now I compared it to ten random hits from the early 1970s — used 'correctly' all ten times. From the early to mid '80s — 'correctly' 9 times, 'incorrectly' once. Obviously at some point between 1985 and 2005 the phrase underwent a total shift of meaning, at least in legal opinions.

  50. language hat said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    But where the rest of what you write is concerned, I simply can't think of it as technical jargon or geek-speak. It's an expression I've used quite unselfconsciouly, in ordinary family conversation, since I was a child. OK, we were middle class (in the British/Irish sense) and 'well educated' but nobody in my immediate family is or was an academic and none of the academics in my extended family work on formal logic, philosophy or the history of ideas. It's just an expression that does a job. I accept that it may no longer do the job as well as it used to and that it certainly doesn't do the job as widely as it used to but it's hardly esoteric.

    You are wrong, and it's time you adjusted your mental image of the world to reality. I have a wide circle of acquaintance, and I would expect very few of them to be familiar with the expression in its philosophical sense. It is the very definition of an esoteric term; it just happens that it was one that had currency in your family. Every family has such terms; ayah was part of daily vocabulary in mine, but that doesn't mean that I would use it in public with any expectation of being understood.

    I am delighted that Mark has done such a superb job on this expression, and I will henceforth refer people to it as necessary. And I will continue to enjoy the angst of pedants frothing fruitlessly against the "misuse" they hear and see around them from the 99.9% of humanity that knows and cares nothing about the "proper" use of this silly phrase. (I agree that "invite the question" is an excellent substitute if, for whatever reason, one prefers not to annoy the pedants.)

  51. language hat said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    By the way, Aristotle's verb is αἰτεῖσθαι, not "αἰτεσθαι."

    [(myl) Oops — apologies for the typo, thanks for the correction.]

  52. Carl said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    @Matthew Kehrt

    Amusingly, (a -> a) -> a is the type signature of the Y combinator in a typed lambda calculus. And by the Curry-Howard correspondence, implementations of a function in lambda calculus serve as a proof of the type signature as a statement of intuitionist logic.

    Thinking about that hurt my head for quite a while… Until I realized that the Curry-Howard correspondence only applied to functions that can be implemented in a total language, and the Y combinator can't be implemented in a total language, as it's non-terminating with most input.

  53. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    @Carl: Not that you'd have any way of knowing this, but your post was amusing to me, as I'm absolutely certain Matthew Kehrt is already quite familiar with the Y combinator and the Curry-Howard correspondence and so on.

    However, do note that one doesn't have to insert ad hoc "totality" conditions afterwards to recover a proper correspondence; the Y combinator (\f -> (\x -> f(x x)) (\x -> f(x x))) is, in fact, not simply typeable. If you want a fixed point operator in the simply typed lambda calculus, you have to insert it by hand; it doesn't come for free as in the untyped lambda calculus. And so, the standard plain-vanilla Curry-Howard correspondence as applied to the simply typed lambda calculus works perfectly fine without any "inconsistency", there being no term of type (a -> a) -> a within this.

  54. ignoramus said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    You have given me an answer so why this answer?
    "I say wot I mean, I mean wot I say"…
    'tis a language 'ting' it slowly changes, like a birds beak, depends on the food it has to eat and the feed back received.

    The Pedants are needed to give some balance to this evolutionary problem, idioms change, 'tis always good to have a source that is available that is not contaminated by the masses.
    At the same time, there should never be a monopoly on word meanings, the neurons will always taint the word input via eye/ear with a virus before being transcribed by the mouth or hand.

  55. MJ said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    With respect to semantic lemonade and invitation, I think there's some evidence that 'begs' in the "incorrect" use of 'begs the question' does just mean "invites"– in particular, we find people saying "that begs repeating" (google it) in roughly the sense of "invites repetition". I also notice google hits for "begs discussing", "begs the response", even "begs implementation." Claims and questions, in ordinary parlance, beg many things.

  56. Sam said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    Proposal 4 is an good solution for contexts where you didn't mean beg the question in the first place.

    But "assume the conclusion" doesn't naturally capture the meaning of the pedant's "beg the question" at all. Does anyone really take "assume the conclusion" to mean to assume something in that sneaky way and then reason a little bit and arrive at the conclusion? It seems to me that only someone who knew the pedant's use of "beg the question" would take it to mean just that.

    [(myl) There are other phrases available that express various shades of related meaning while still using English words in their ordinary senses. For example, you can accuse your opponent of sneak the conclusion into the premises of their argument.]

    Nor does "raise the question" capture the meaning of average Joe's "beg the question," as some others noted: the element of forcefulness, even necessity. I worry that there's a loss of precision in both cases, as well as a loss of color.

    It should be noted that the pedant's case of begging the question is more rare than the average Joe's. I.e., one finds fewer circular arguments than question-raising scenarios. It's not surprising to find that this use takes over, but it's not any indication of the fitness of the other use!

  57. LaForge said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    I'm no linguist, but a couple years ago I had a job that required me to compile and summarize legal news stories. In so doing I encountered (and recognized, with all the credit due to David Foster Wallace's minor classic of a word note in the Oxford Writer's Thesaurus) a few examples of "beg the question" in its "assume the conclusion" form. All of these stories were collected from well-edited mainstream sources such as NYT, WSJ and Dahlia Lithwick's column in Slate, and nearly every instance (there were probably three or four in the eight months I did this work) was contained in a quote from a Supreme Court justice during oral arguments. I mention this not to take issue with your ironclad assertion that the "raises" usage is killing the "assumes" usage in the overall numbers game, but to point out that there are small niches of readers (among them the law-nerd niche) who are exposed with greater-than-average frequency to the olde tyme usage. Supreme Court justices aren't NYT columnists, and legal news isn't financial news, but my belief is that A LOT of more-or-less regular people have come into contact with the more pedantic of the two usages. It's my related belief, however, in agreement with what's being said here, that a tiny fraction of those knew what they were reading when they read it. On the other hand, no less a print star than Joe Posnanski DID write a column in 2009 about coming to understand the etymology of "beg the question." There could be renaissance on the horizon.

    I think the reason the "raises" usage seeped so deeply into my personal brain is similar to the one being suggested by a lot of commentors — that in hearing "beg the question" so often we quickly learn to fill in certain blanks. But my personal brain never heard "Issue A begs [that] the question X [be asked]"; I always heard something a bit simpler: "Issue A begs [for] question X."

  58. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    I think language hat is overconfident in saying George of the 10.01 am comment is "wrong". I agree with everything he says there, and goodness me I'm no pedant, nor stuck in the mud, nor living in a time warp, nor otherwise deluded. And my step-brother, who was born in Penang, learned Chinese from his ayah before ever he learned English (but he no longer knows a word of Chinese).

  59. Spectre-7 said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Both raises the question and invites the question strike me as pretty reasonable replacements for the popular usage of the phrase, although I might lean more toward demands the question. There's a certain forcefulness about the common usage (at least in my reading) that I think is better represented by demand.

  60. language hat said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    I'm no pedant

    With respect, that's not something one can confidently proclaim of oneself, any more than one can announce that one does indeed have a sense of humor. Pedantry, like humor, is found in the pudding. To know and use the phrase in its technical sense is not in and of itself a sign of pedantry, as long as one saves it for appropriate interlocutors; to use it among the public at large while expecting them to know what you mean and to find them lacking if they don't (not to mention sneering at them if they use it in the "wrong" sense): those are clear signs of pedantry. I leave it to your conscience to define your own situation.

  61. Muke Tever said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    In my opinion, however, using "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" is only one notch less weird than using it to mean "assume the conclusions". We don't use beg in other contexts with this meaning: "??I'd like to beg the topic of what to have for dinner".

    I'd guess that's because while "beg the question" may mean "raise the question", it doesn't suggest an equivalence of the components—they're idioms, after all. Trying to substitute 'raise' for 'beg' in this example of "raise the question" from the first page of Google News results for it doesn't work either:

    Likening the current Goldman situation to the woes of Shoeless Joe Jackson […] Spender raises the question: "Why the upset over Jackson?"

    … 'Spender begs the question' wouldn't do at all here. The sense of "beg" in "begs the question" is closer to 'prompt'—it's a request for discussion in response to a stimulus, while raising a question can be done impromptu.

  62. Jonathan said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    Fantastic column, Mark! This is why I keep coming back here.

    After recently seeing another (mis-)use of "beg the question" I was getting curious as to exactly how we got there from petitio principii. I couldn't have asked for a better answer. Many Thanks!

  63. JimG said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    I, dear friends, AM a pedant; If you ask me what time it is, I'll tell you how to make a clock.

    We had this discussion on LL some five years ago. It beggars belief, beggars the imagination, that we can't get a comfortable definition and description of question-begging. When I first encountered the phrase, Lo! these many years ago, I couldn't get a clear reading of meaning and use, and had to try to pick up its sense from use and context. IMO, the question still begs an answer.

  64. möngke said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    An excellent post. I'm always kind of amused when phrases that don't seem to make much sense can be traced to translation inaccuracies, and annoyed when people use phrases like "begging the question" to sound more sophisticated to undergraduates, when they could just have talked about "assuming the conclusion" and everybody would have understood them…

    That aside, perhaps I shouldn't compare about calquing too much, since I get the impression that around 20% of compounds in my native language (Slovene) are basically (more or less vulgar) calques from German. :)

  65. Uri said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    In my opinion, however, using "beg the question" to mean "raise the question" is only one notch less weird than using it to mean "assume the conclusions".

    Like Chris and Mike Aubrey, I've always found this a perfectly intuitive construction. You also get this use of "beg" meaning "raise/push/force" in related phrases, such as "beg the answer", "beg that case for" or "beg the thought".

  66. begging the question « Thought du Jour said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    […] Liberman, "Begging the question": we have answers, Language Log, 29 April […]

  67. George said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 7:41 am

    This will be my last contribution.

    Language hat wrote in reply to Simon Cauchi (whose sympathetic comment I appreciate): "To know and use the phrase in its technical sense is not in and of itself a sign of pedantry, as long as one saves it for appropriate interlocutors; to use it among the public at large while expecting them to know what you mean and to find them lacking if they don't (not to mention sneering at them if they use it in the "wrong" sense): those are clear signs of pedantry. I leave it to your conscience to define your own situation".

    I agree with all of this. But it's very easy to set up a straw man and knock it down again. And unless I'm not picking up on some sign of humour, there's an agressiveness in language hat's tone that I fnd a bit unsettling.

    I do not believe that a single contributor to this thread has suggested that it is s good idea to use a phrase among people unlikely to understand it or that it is appropriate to sneer at anybody (for whatever reason). At most, some (myself included) have admitted that they find the 'new' usage jarring. And while I may seethe in silence, that is my own bloody business and nobody else's as long as I keep it to myself. A number of people (myself included) have pointed out that there is little risk of ambiguity anyway. I will continue to use the phrase in its 'traditional' sense in the sort of contexts where I have always used it and where it has overwhelmingly been understood, however 'defective' language hat may consider my 'mental image of the world' to be. So will millions of other people.

  68. Sara L. Uckelman said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 8:09 am

    "Some medieval translator (does anyone know who?) decided to translate Aristotle's "assuming the conclusion" into petitio principii."

    Almost certainly either Boethius or James of Venice. Boethius's translation of the Sophistici Elenchi was rediscovered in the west in the 1120s. James of Venice, working between 1125 and 1150, also retranslated the text. These translations became the standard Latin versions in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately my books are at the office so I cannot confirm which (or whether) it was.

  69. Aaron Davies said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    will either throw or piss some people off

    syllepsis-of-the-day award goes to <drumroll> … Lane!

  70. Your argument lacks validity | Stearns Fatherblog said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    […] Extra: The internets are all over the question of "begging the question."  The Rabbit hole starts here. […]

  71. J said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    I don't have a horse in this race, and I agree Hat's tone was a little aggressive, but on the other hand George, perhaps you protest too much? You say "while I may seethe in silence, that is my own bloody business and nobody else's as long as I keep it to myself." Quite fair enough, but (and here I use one of the observed but less-commented on senses of the phrase) that begs the question (i.e. it evades the question of whether or not you're a pedant). For example, say you were wildly prudish and felt that couples of any sort so much as smiling at each other in public was highly improper (obviously I'm taking things to extremes for this point). The fact that you kept your seething anger at Barack and Michelle, that couple at the gas station, and the not-infrequent behavior of most other couples in the world to yourself would indeed mean it's your own bloody business and no one else's. It would NOT, however, make you anything less than an *incredible* prude.

    Among other things, there is a bit of a tiff on the meaning of pedant going on here, but I don't think it's meant as an insult. For what it's worth, in my estimation you sound like a pedant, because the incorrect, that is to say newer, usage bugs you disproportionate to any materially negative effect it has on the world. You seem a quite polite, thoughtful and reasonable one. A pedant nonetheless, though!

    (I'm thinking now of the old backhanded compliment, "Oh no no no, I know him. He's not a pedant; he's a nice guy.")

    [(myl) Please note that in "A soul candidly acknowleging it's fault", 6/9/2004, I observed that if Lynne Truss is "not a pedant, but a stickler", that I (along with Thomas Jefferson) should be considered a not a stickler, but a pedant. I'll let the other participants in this discussion choose sides for themselves.]

  72. Owlmirror said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    I (along with Thomas Jefferson) should be considered a not a stickler, but a pendant

    As is often the case in a comment thread where irony is used, I cannot tell if this is deliberate self-directed irony, or yet another example of the remorselessness of the Bierce/Hartman/McKean/Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

  73. Was Jesus a philosopher? « Evolving Thoughts said,

    May 9, 2010 @ 7:04 am

    […] conclusion in its premises, bitches. It doesn't mean to raise the question, no matter what occasional lexicographers might think. Prescriptivism rules in logic, if nowhere […]

  74. Link love: language (17) « Sentence first said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    […] Raising the question of “begging the question”. […]

  75. In Which an Important Question Is Begged | Encyclopedia Virginia: The Blog said,

    April 29, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    […] the question" does not mean to beg someone to ask a question! Our friends at Language Log offer a helpful summary of the phrase's history and, more importantly, its meaning, which is to "assume the […]

  76. jeff said,

    June 8, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    I have become so irate over raising the question as begging the question
    (I have some training in logic) that I have decided never to look at news again, and I am withdrawing completely from the political process. America is "over" if we give even educated people permission to be stupid.

  77. Steve Morrison said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

    I just saw a variant on this phrase, namely "the question still begs"!

  78. Hoist On Your Own Pedant § Unqualified Offerings said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    […] state of things, per Language Log: You can see that this is true by looking at how the phrase is used, even in well-edited sources. […]

  79. We beg you to stop “begging the question” « Grammar Guide « copydesk.org said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    […] is a Language Log post about "begging the question"  and here is another one. Here is Paul Brians on "begs the […]

  80. We Are Bugged - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

    […] hang on “begs the question.” Even though, as one commenter points out—and a recent article on Language Log investigated—this use of the phrase has become commonplace, no one failed at least to imagine a […]

  81. Will said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    Since language rests on distinctions, it's hard to see how blurring those distinctions, not for reason, but through ignorance, is helpful, even if it is inevitable.

    Though language changes ceaselessly, and to resist this change is almost certainly quixotic, it remains the case that some changes assist understanding and others undermine it.

    This particular blurring undermines the intention of a single phrase whose meaning was both clear and useful and leaves what is often a muddle of meaning hoping to be righted by context. Worse, if the old sense is actually displaced altogether, we've lost for all practical purposes the history contained in the phrase's etymology.

    This because, say, Katie Couric, like us but with the ear of millions, erased a distinction out of ignorance.

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