Thursday, May 21, 2009

When Good Questions Beg

Language changes. I realize that. For example, "nice" used to mean stupid and foolish; now it's a term of praise. Check out this entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1290, "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see
un-) + stem of scire "to know."

"The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (c.1380); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1405); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?" "Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything." [Jane Austen, "Northanger Abbey"]

So, words change. Definitions change. I understand that. Sometimes it's nice. Nevertheless, I still get heartburn over what I see happening to the hapless term, "beg the question." We've now reached the point at which even NPR reporters use the term incorrectly.
What does "beg the question" mean? It means to provide an answer that fails to answer the question which was asked. The means of failure is a lapse in logic, whereby the answer is based on a premise that needs as much proof as the conclusion. For example, if someone said the following, I'd say he's begging the question:
"The right thing to do is to close Guantanamo. Why? Because no self-respecting country would operate such a place. Moving on to my next point, ..."
Begging the question is very close to circular reasoning. In daily use, we might say someone is begging the question if he fails to substantiate an opinion by stating an equally unsubstantiated position:
"Arminians are heretics."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because they don't believe what the Bible says, and that makes them heretics."
You get the idea. Or maybe you don't. Because if you're like almost everyone I hear - whether in person or over the airwaves - you may be thinking that "beg the question" means "to beget a question," that is, "to raise a question." You might think this is correct usage:
"He said Guantanamo should be closed, which begs the question: What do we do with all the prisoners?"
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It pains me every time I hear such a usage (use?), the moreso when it comes from intelligent persons who ought to know better.
Can this phrase be rescued?
(As you might expect, Wikipedia has an informative entry regarding this phrase.)
(And yes, I'm well aware of the danger of positioning oneself as a grammar expert. Chances are, I've made three grammatical errors in this blog entry, thereby voiding my credibility. Oh well, as the Germans say, "C'est la vie.")


  1. I vaguely recall a lecture you gave at the Roto during dinner about whose, whom and who. Are you sure you're not an English teacher in disguise?

  2. I have never heard anyone use "beg the question" properly, as you've pointed out. Neither did I try to figure out the proper meaning of the phrase, presuming it followed the form of "beg your pardon" or "beg to differ", which if you think about it, makes more sense. I would never have interpreted it as circular reasoning or an answer that doesn't apply to the question. It would be an interesting phrase to discuss in ESL classes, especially with the grad students--how amazed will the American scholars be when they are corrected on proper English from an International?

    By the way, have you always known the term's proper usage? How did you figure this out? By reading the dictionary?

  3. This is related to your post but not really:

  4. I think I was born knowing these things.

    Actually, I've always been interested in words and grammar. Much more interesting to me than numbers, though I can manage them well enough.

    So you pastor's writing for the First Things blog. That's cool. They could use a few more intelligent evangelicals providing content.

  5. Nicely done. I was surprised I enjoyed being interested in what seems to be such dry material. I think its time Arnold you wrote for publication. PAID publication.


  6. Bob -
    I appreciate the compliment. Maybe someday. Right now, I feel it'd be a distraction from the other things I need to be doing with my life. Plus, what I write is so eclectic that I don't know where I'd shop it, anyway.
    Thanks, though!

  7. Yes, my pastor is last of a dying breed of Christian minister, I'm afraid.

    You should see his reading list. No fiction whatsoever. He just hasn't the time. And not one fancy pop bestselling Christian author, either.

    As for your writing career, please let us know as soon as you are published. We'd like our copy signed, please. There is nothing wrong with eclectic, which is really just another word for weirdly interesting.


  8. He should reconsider on the fiction. Even Jesus told parables, all of which were "fiction." And if he goes to movies at all, that's almost always fiction.

    Some fiction has changed my life, or at least my way of thinking. Lewis's "Till We Have Faces" comes to mind, as does his "Perelandra" and Robinson's "Gilead," for example. Some fiction is merely mindless entertainment, but so is a lot of nonfiction.