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Begs the Question: Update

Language is changing but that doesn't mean you have to go with the flow.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
March 6, 2014
Episode #406

Page 2 of 2

The Wrong Way to Use "Begs the Question”

Begs the question is used wrong a lot. It took me about two seconds to find examples of bad usage in the news. Many people mistakenly believe it's OK to use the phrase to introduce a clever or obvious question. For example, a headline in The Globe and Mail reads

Dutch dominance in long track speed skating begs the question, where’s Canada?

The writer is using begs the question to mean something like "makes me wonder."

Here's a headline from Mother Nature Network:

New ‘Pompeii’ movie begs the question: Could Mount Vesuvius erupt again?

Again, the writer seems to think begs the question means something like “raises the question" or "leads us to ask."

Common Usage Versus Established Meaning

This new, traditionally wrong usage is so common that the online Merriam-Webster dictionary lists it as a meaning without any kind of qualifying comment such as “nonstandard” or “slang.” (7) 

When I was working on my latest book, 101 Troublesome Words [Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound], I tried to find examples of people using begs the question the traditionally correct way, and I went through thousands of search results without finding one. 

Words and phrases do change their meanings in English. If you visit QuickAndDirtyTips.com often, you may remember my blog post from August about how the word egregious used to mean “good” but now it means “bad.” When thousands of people use a word or phrase the “wrong” way, and almost nobody is using it the “right” way, it’s a clear sign that the meaning is changing.

See How Do Words Get in the Dictionary?

My advice is to avoid using begs the question to mean “raises the question.” Reestablishing the traditional meaning of begs the question is a lost cause, but even though almost nobody will realize you’ve made an error, there’s also no compelling reason to misappropriate the phrase. If you mean “raises the question,” say “raises the question.” 

References

1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 91.

2. Safire, W. "ON LANGUAGE: Take My Question." The New York Times. July 26, 1998. http://tinyurl.com/6bd2g6 (accessed March 7, 2014).

3. Cochrane, J. Between You and I. Sourcebooks, Inc.:Naperville, Illinois. 2004. p. 11-12.

4. "Fallacy: Begging the Question." The Nizkor Project. http://tinyurl.com/3om69 (accessed March 7, 2014).

5. Brians, P. "Begs the Question." Common Errors in English Usage. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/begs.html (accessed March 7, 2014).

6. "Poisonous Plants." Poison and Drug Information Center, University of Arizona. http://bit.ly/1cvPgTE (accessed March 7, 2014).

7. "beg." Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beg (accessed March 7, 2014).

 

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