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Saturday, March 11, 2017

The question, and how to beg it

I had intended to write a long and difficult piece inspired by this important essay by Masha Gessen. Maybe tomorrow. Right now, let's revive this blog's tradition of publishing non-political posts on the weekends. That tradition ended last year, when the Trump threat became all-consuming.

Earlier tonight, a YouTuber annoyed me by mis-using the phrase "begs the question." Like most other younger people, the video-maker seemed to be under the impression that "begging the question" is simply a fancy way of saying "raising the question."

But that's not true.

"Begging the question" refers to the logical fallacy of petitio principii, or circular reasoning -- an argument which assumes as a given the very point being debated. A classic example of petitio principii was provided by one of Bart Ehrman's students, who offered the following proof of God's existence: "The Bible says that God exists. Since God wrote the Bible and God wouldn't lie, it must be telling the truth." Most arguments in favor of religious doctrines rest on a foundation of petitio principii -- or, as I sometimes call it, p.p.

(If you want to lose as many girlfriends as I've lost over the years, be sure to tell the woman in your life "You're making p.p. again" every time she says something which you consider logically invalid.)

Now that we've established what "begging the question" really means, I have to ask: How should we react when people use the phrase incorrectly? Consider the following hypothetical exchange between myself and an ill-educated young YouTuber:

Me: "You're using the term 'beg the question' incorrectly. It doesn't mean what you think it means."

Ill-educated young YouTuber: "All right, Mr. Smarty Pants. If I can't say "that begs the question," then what should I say?"

I'm not sure how to answer. (Although I could get used to being called Mr. Smarty Pants.)

Most of the time, the phrase "that raises the question" gets pretty close to the intended idea. Pretty close -- but not all the way there. In my experience, people tend to say "that begs the question" when one mystery has been solved and a deeper mystery has manifested. The phrase is a signal: This issue has a hidden layer.

Example: "And so we can't escape the conclusion that Trump's popularity owes much to the widespread belief in conspiracy theories. But that only begs the question: Why have conspiracy theories gained credibility in recent years?"

As you re-read the preceding sentence, mentally replace "that only begs the question" with "that only raises the question" and you may see a problem. The meaning is not quite the same; something has gone missing. The lost shade of meaning is subtle and hard to define, but its absence is felt nonetheless.

How about this...?

"But that only forces us to confront the question of..." 

No. Too clunky. The intended meaning is there, but the phrase lacks grace.

Should we give in and say "that only begs the question"? Should dictionaries reflect common usage? Is it time for us all to admit that the term "begs the question" used to mean one thing but now means something else?

I'd like to hear your answer to that question. I'm begging you.
I'm afraid we should probably reflect common usage. No-one uses it correctly, anyway.
This is actually my pet peeve. Most of the time I don't say anything, but sometimes I just can't help it.

You are on the side of the angels, Joseph Cannon.
"But that only leads to the question..."
Is it a misuse or newfangled usage? I always find it corny and trite, a marker of unhip or unhep thinking and crappy learning. Worse is 'nonplussed', which is seldom used in speech, but it's gaining use in writing where it means 'unfazed' instead of 'dumbfounded' or 'rendered speechless', and it's no longer incorrect when it's used, like, stupidly. 'Begs the question' belongs to that lazy mindset that would claim 'the exception proves the rule'.
Language does evolve, Amelie, but some changes are intolerable. I refuse to accept the new meaning ascribed to "hoi polloi." This term refers to "the common people," but some argue that it should now be considered a synonym for "the elite." The traditional meaning has been flipped on its head!

No no no no. NO.

Also, young people who refer to a symphony or a concerto as a "song" should be SKINNED ALIVE.
Joseph, I'd say usage evolves and language suffers. The kids are alright and could care less what me or you think. But that's irregardless and there's no exscaping it. Whenever I come upon 'push the envelope' I feel smug knowing the term should be 'push the outside of the envelope'. I loathe 'bottom line' and feel empathetic embarrassment for whoever says 'cut to the chase', both are code for 'I have ADHD, you have ADHD'. Was that a comma-spliced sentence? 'Bottom line' comes from accounting jargon but in general usage it implies 'finally nothing else matters', or it means the same as 'cut to the chase'; both are dead metaphors employed only by zombies. The media are inside agitators, rotten to the corps. There's no preventative electorial single magic silver bullet, only mindnumbing and mischievious pablum that reinforces trite cliches 24/7 while urban legends win the whole nine yards. Who cares other than a few lawyers that 'i.e.' is mostly used to mean 'e.g.'? Certainly 'politically correct' has glided into wide meanings. Dammit and OMG, back in the '80s, a French furniture store merchant was jailed because he used the non-French, English term 'showroom' (or 'show room') in his advertising display. First he was cited and fined for using a foreign term when a perfectly good and proper French term could be used, such was the law and its justice. The merchant refused to pay and for that contempt was tried, convicted, and locked up. He could of gotten off for a song. These usages owe their success to the original notion of memes. Clearly the camel's nose has left the toothpaste tube.
Amelie, you made me smile when you wrote "The kids are alright and could care less what me or you think." I presume that this was intentional; very witty. I don't mind either "bottom line" or "cut to the chase," although the latter term makes little sense nowadays, because some action movies are nothing BUT chase scenes. I made my peace with "hopefully" a long time ago. "For all intensive purposes" will always make me snicker.

The comma/semicolon thing often bugs me. The rule is simple: If there is both a subject and a predicate on both sides of the comma, either change the comma to a semicolon or use a conjunction. (Sometimes you can use a colon, as I did in the previous sentence.)

You know what has really started to bother me? The term "fast forward." That phrase is heard at some point in nearly every first-person scary story on YouTube. "Fast forward" is unobjectionable on grammatical grounds, but overuse has made it annoying.

I can understand why the French got ticked off by "le Parking" and other intrusions, but the purists take things too far.

Hey, are you familiar with the work of Richard Mitchell? Great guy. I had a long, long interview with him, many years ago.
I think "that begs the question" means, "if you believe A because of B, then that means the scenario of C is likely.

However, it turns out that some throw away phrases that we use in verbal speech make no sense when used in actual postings. The biggest one I have found is ending a sentence with the phrase "as well". I use "as well" a lot when I speak, but when I go to add it to the end of a written sentence, I realize how stupid it sounds and looks and I don't add it.
So I'm begging you, don't use "that begs the question" when you write, and when someone else writes it, tell them to quit begging.
At the end of the day, never use "at the end of the day" during the day.
But Stephen, this means there is literally no expression that means "begging the question" anymore, just as the modern conflation of "literally" and "figuratively" means that there is no way left in English to express the distinction between a literal and figurative statement. Objecting to that is not a manifestation of some bizarre obsession with grammatical rules, it's a noble defense of precision and elegance of expression against the onslaught of barbarism and ignorance.

do i have this right? i base the following gloss on the etymology of the term.

asking the question: (based on the concept of asking, in which one is assumed to be neutral) communicating a request for information with respect to a specified topic, parameter, circumstance, or condition.

begging the question: (based on the concept of begging, in which one is implied to be constrained by some pressing need) requiring the existence of the question, or of a specific answer thereto, without which whatever statement has had the unlucky fate to stand so accused will not be able to... stand.

please excuse that last redundancy: because late.
Propaganda: original meaning educational material. I request it only be used correctly, without this modish pejorative connotation people insist on giving it.

The problem with "begging the question" is that no-one knows what it means. If you've been trained in logic, mayhap you know what it means, otherwise that is not a standard use of the word "begging". If mean that someone is assuming the answer to a question or using circular reasoning, say so. That way people will actually understand what you mean. If you're just going to ignore common usage, I recommend using latin instead.
Stephen, I agree with the general principle that the purpose of language is communication. But I don't think that communication is aided when we change the meaning of words capriciously. For centuries, "begging the question" meant one thing and now it means something else. Does that situation create clarity or confusion?

Redefining "begging the question" bugs me, but not as much as the proposed redefinition of "literally" bugs me.

Here's another example: "Witch." I'm sure you've heard modern wiccans give you their standard speech about how witches aren't evil and don't worship Satan and "actually we worship the Goddess and the forces of nature" yada yada yada. Now, I've met some self-proclaimed witches, and I know that most of them are very nice people. But let's be honest: The redefinition of that word is recent. For centuries -- MANY centuries -- "witch" referred to someone who worships the forces of evil. That was the definition of the word, and all older books reflect that usage. You cannot simply declare that a word which used to mean one thing now means something else.

I also miss the original meaning of "gay," although I doubt that we can bring it back.

I am, in general, against redefining words that have been in service for many years. To me, it makes more sense to come up with a NEW word. That's why I prefer "wiccan" to "witch." Neologisms are fine because they aid communication; redefinitions just create confusion.

Do you really want to live in a world in which old words can receive arbitrary new definitions? Suppose someone tells you that the word "egg" now refers to a kind of toolbox and the word "coining" is now a synonym for "dancing." That would be awfully confusing, right? Does that kind of confusion help the cause of communication? I don't think so. I believe that a book written in 1890 should be more-or-less comprehensible to a reader in 2090 or even 2190.
Most people understand witch to mean witch. Most people don't understand begging the question to mean begging the question. The meaning changed itself. The word gay is a good comparison. Gay, as used in the Flintstones theme song, is no longer in use, gay means homosexual. Some people can just about understand the old meaning, but it's effectively obsolete.
i cannot believe i am aboujt to defend witches...

if 'witches' were by definition evil, then one wouldn't have had need of further specification as to their alliegiance, and Glenda would have been an abberation from, instead of a counterbalance to, her green-skinned bicycle-racing toto-snatching compeer.

but this is not the case.

it is the Wicked> Witch of the West.

witches were not necessarily evil. they most probably, however, were anti-religious and authoritarian...

if by religious you mean catholic... and if by authoritarian you mean male,...

but thiis is not the case.

witches were not necessarily evil. they were, however, anti-uthoritariian
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