It begs the way we see the world

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Brad Plumer, "Two Degrees: How the World Failed on Climate Change", Vox 4/22/2014:

"If you’re serious about 2°C, the rates of change are so significant that it begs the way we see the world. That’s what people aren’t prepared to embrace," says Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. "Essentially you’d have to start asking questions about our current society and how we develop and grow."

A few years ago, we looked into the whole "begs the question" question: "Begging the Question: We Have Answers", 4/29/2010; "Begging the Question: We Have Examples", 5/1/2010.

But I missed the interestingly diverse range of ways that beg has been re-lexicalized as a result of people's attempts to make some sense of question begging: it can be taken to mean "(the question) comes up", or "(something) brings up the issue of", or just plain "(someone or something) asks". Some internet examples:

The question therefore begs the way to combat obesity or maybe the slightest excess weight as well as answer is based on healthy eating.

And during all this, you'll get sexual theory that underlies the actions, which begs the way into the next level of the book…

It begs the way I feel about my wife and the music just makes me want to cry….for joy.

The question begs — what is the role of P-glycoprotein in normal physiology?

Verdict begs: What happened to civility?

Forty Years After Martin Luther King's Assassination, the Question Begs: What if He Had Lived?

Admirable – but the question begs what, if any role DISPERSANTS play in this training?

I love the question Facebook begs: what have you been up to?

Curiosity begs… What is your opinion on Unitarian Universalists?

The question begs. What language are you translating?

 So the question begs, what is this going to cost US?

The question of the ontology behind it is intriguing because it really begs whether this is a legitimate question to ask or whether we're just able to ask this question since we did come into existence.

A thought-provoking piece that begs whether we should rethink medical privacy to accelerate advancement.

This begs whether the United States should have invaded Afghanistan in the first place.

This definition begs whether every expression can be put into standard form; the answer is positive and provided by this lemma.




  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    I think the reason why I've never learned the ("the"?) meaning of "to beg the question" passively (ie: by lots of reading) is that people don't use this idiom in a consistent way at all.

    In some of the above examples "to beg" adds for me a tad of intensity to the bare "to ask". This will be because the lexeme "beg" is for me primarily associated with begging, and I subconsciously interpret an "ask" meaning with imploring in mind. But maybe that's just me.

    I think a lot of words don't have very specific meanings for a lot of people. I think that meaning derives from familiar collocations and morphological makeup a lot more than people (incl linguists) are aware.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

    I was gonna add "thanks for making me feel good about still having no clue how to use this lexeme" …

    … but let's have some fun by enumerating the different patterns "to beg" can appear in in this ill-defined, question-related usage cluster:
    • to beg <question>
    • for X to beg the way …  [X can be "the question"]
    • for the question to beg

  3. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    Maybe we can construe #3 as an instantiation of #1 (punctuation distracts). Let's go with a unified
    • for X to beg <question> / ₍the way …₎
    where X can be "the question" (which we wouldn't want to see repeated).

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    "Beg" even under normal circumstances is a bit funny because, considered as transitive, it can have two different sorts of objects, either a) the person who can provide what is desired; or b) what is desired. So examples of a would be "Ryan begs Claire to reconsider" or "Family begs young drivers to slow down" while an example of b) would be "Pope Francis begs forgiveness." But the latter category seems non-productive and quite restricted by idiomatic considerations: you can beg forgiveness but you typically have to beg *for* help (or a tax break, or salad — all examples from recent headlines found via google news – "beg for X" seems productive in a way "beg X" for this sort of object is not). There must be things you can beg w/o an intervening "for" other than forgiveness, pardon, and the question, but I'm thinking it's a pretty limited set, and maybe that particular oddity of the poorly-understood "beg the question" fixed phrase means that when people try to generalize from it, disaster strikes.

  5. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    While looking for examples of "X begs Y" w/o Y being "the question" for my prior comment, I did come upon this (from the Huffington Post): "World Vision's Flip-Flop Begs Question: Can You Be Evangelical And Support Same-Sex Marriage?" This is seemed interesting because it is somewhat ambiguous (in the context of the story that follows) between the more recent "raises the question" sense and the traditional "assumes the conclusion" sense.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    I see this as related to the common English occurrence where the same verb serves as a transitive and an intransitive one, the subject of the latter being the object of the former (in most other IE languages the latter would be reflexive):

    I stop the car — the car stops.
    We have shipped the package — the package has shipped.
    He wears this shirt — this shirt wears well.

    The difference here is that, in the examples cited, "beg" is not entirely intransitive ("begs the way", whatever that means).

  7. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    @ Coby Lubliner

    What you describe is the ergative alternation. The reason I didn't want to get into this is the following: If you write
        The question begs, "<yes/no-question>?"  [or with a : after "begs"]
        The question begs "<wh-question>".
    it seems that it's just an instantiation of "to beg <question>" with
        <question> = "the question <yes/no- or wh-question>"
    where the words "the question" were fronted to fill in for the lack of a real subject (agent). But I'm not sure this will fit all examples: perhaps in "the question begs the way …", "the question" can refer to something else.

    I think "the way …" is an exceptional instantiation of <question>, but I didn't want to be too general in order to remain descriptively accurate. It asks "how" (though this doesn't work with the example "begs the way into the next level of the book" given in the original post).

  8. chh said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    Stephen Stiller, I think the "the way" examples are just concealed questions, aren't they?. At least that's the way I'm reading it, but I'd never seen that type of sentence before this post! Looks like this sense of 'beg' can take questions or concealed questions as complements, not unlike 'ask', 'forget', or various other verbs that take question complements.

    Can't decide on a particular thing to link to…

  9. chh said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    Sorry for misspelling your name, Stephan, and for the two typos I'll inevitably make in this post.

  10. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 22, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

    That's what I meant by "exceptional instantiation", but I didn't know the term "concealed question" (thx!). I didn't want to check whether "beg" can take concealed questions other than ones with "the way", but I invite others to research this.

    @ Coby Lubliner
    Addendum about the fronting: I doubt anyone fronts the entire question. So it's syntactically interesting.

  11. Victoria Simmons said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    These weird uses of 'beg' reduce me to a state of emotional beggary.

  12. Viseguy said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 12:48 am

    Perhaps the reason that people find "beg the question" confusing is that the actual meaning is so far removed from the primary meaning of "beg". The path of least resistance — as opposed to, say, looking it up in the dictionary — is to ASSuME that the expression has something to do with asking humbly, so the meaning gets distorted into something like "raises another question that begs for an answer". Either that, or it's a product of the sophomoric notion that "I know what I mean when I say 'beg the question' — it's your job to figure it out."

  13. Rodger C said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    @Viseguy: Yep, that's exactly what happened, which is why I've abandoned using the phrase altogether. The original meaning is totally opaque, containing two highly specialized uses of otherwise common words, and the newer meaning is, well, annoying to those of us who learned the "correct" meaning first.

  14. quixote said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    "begs the question" has always irritated me because it doesn't seem to mean anything. How can you "beg" a question? It's not a person with feelings one can appeal to. So, as Viseguy says, I'm one of those who shoehorned it into "Oh, hell, it's probably just some sixty four dollar way of saying 'it implies the question.'"

    Now I find out it actually does mean something, and some people even know what that is. There's even a suggestion you can look it up! I wouldn't want to go that far, so can a kind soul explain what the original meaning actually was? What does "beg" stand for in this weird phrase?

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    quixote, it's a somewhat clumsy translation from Latin of petitio principii which Wiktionary says is a calque of Ancient Greek τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι, which I don't know how to parse. But petitio is to petition, to request, to beseech, which I guess someone translated as beg.

  16. Peter S. said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 8:41 pm

    The sheer badness of the translation of *petitio principii* as *begs the question* petitions the principle of whether maybe it was originally translated this way as a joke.

  17. quixote said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

    Interesting. Now that you gave me some clue what to look up, I did go see what the idea is behind "petitio principii."

    It actually refers to the fallacy of assuming the point one is proving? Why didn't they just say so!

    I don't know whether I'm relieved this mystery is finally solved or even more irritated at the mental jumps and gymnastics I'll now be doing each time I hear the term and trace its non sequiturs.

    Oh well. I guess I'll look on the bright side and chalk it up to Alzheimer's prevention.

  18. Rod Johnson said,

    April 23, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

    For a thorough exploration of the translation's history, see myl's post at that "Language Log" thing.

  19. Adrian said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    JW: I don't find "beg forgiveness" idiomatic. I'd say "beg for forgiveness".

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    How about "I beg your pardon" vs. "I beg for your pardon"?

    Idioms aside, this seems like a common pattern of alternation:

    a. I begged Susan for a dollar
    b. I begged a dollar of Susan

    (b) seems stylistically somewhat marked, but perfectly acceptable.

  21. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:20 pm

    The phrase "beg the question" is a linguistic fossil. It does not correspond with any other usage of the word "beg." As such, people seek "the" meaning in context and quickly discover that they can use 'ask' and thereby arrive at a semantically meaningful gloss for any sentence that uses it. Most never look further.

    The specific sense of 'beg' here meaning that the question itself may be invalid depending on the answer or ability to answer, is more subtle, and because the one-word lexical substitution is comparatively very simple and easy to reach, and semantically never complete nonsense in cases where that more subtle meaning is intended, it dominates people's perception.

    And the dominant perception, when people are learning language in context, becomes the reality. Thirty years ago I would have considered 'begs' for 'asks' to be an error. Today it is merely another usage.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    Adrian: I am not in a position to challenge your intuitions with respect to whatever your particular native variety of English may be, but the google n gram viewer indicates (subject to the quirks etc of the corpus on which it is based) that "beg forgiveness" is markedly more common than "beg for forgiveness" and has continuously been so as far back as the data goes.

  23. Dan H said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    This is seemed interesting because it is somewhat ambiguous (in the context of the story that follows) between the more recent "raises the question" sense and the traditional "assumes the conclusion" sense.

    I have zero evidence for this, but I've often suspected that (dodgy translations aside) part of the reason "begs the question" drifted from meaning "assumes the conclusion" to meaning "raises the question" is that doing one very often does the other. "A therefore A" begs (in the sense of raises) the question "is A valid in the first place?"

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    The Chronicle of Higher Education has a really fascinating article on an oral history of the IRA that went very wrong (which is really worth reading for many reasons—anyone who records language from human subjects should read about this case). But more germane—in the comments I found this:

    Chris Bray begs (as in "avoids") the question: Do promises/"guarantees" of confidentiality trump getting evidence in a murder investigation?

    I thought that flip definition of the "begs" (in the sense we're talking about here) as "avoids" was interesting. Can it really be reduced to that?

  25. Jess Hutton said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    I was under the impression, after years of reading, studying writing, and a little debate and rhetoric, that "begs the question" is a rhetorical device meant to uncover or point out an obviously overlooked piece of information. For example (and this is probably a very weak example – it's been many years since my classwork):
    Marco says, "A is greater than B, but B is greater than C. Therefore, I believe A is greater than C."
    Polo says, "But your hypothesis begs the question: what relation does A have to C?"

  26. Jess Hutton said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

    Actually, Rod's link above to another LanLog page is exactly what I meant. It refers to one of Aristotle's original thirteen logical fallacies, "assuming the original conclusion." Thanks, Rod!

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