“Begs the question” — Writing tips

I have seen and heard the expression begs the question used incorrectly much too often. Begging the question is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known by the Latin term petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise the truth of something that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. This is a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.

Aristotle’s work Prior Analytics contained an early discussion of this fallacy.

Alice in Wonderland

Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, he says, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.”

What the cat says seems logical at first glance, but it isn’t. It’s a fallacy—faulty reasoning. In the premise of his argument he is using an assumption (that he is crazy) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is crazy. This is an unsound argument. He is begging the question.

Other examples of begging the question:

“Celibacy is an unnatural and unhealthy practice, since it is neither natural nor healthy to exclude sexual activity from one’s life.”

“Happiness is the highest good for a human being, because all other values are inferior to it.”

“Of course smoking causes cancer. The smoke from cigarettes is a carcinogen.”

When a writer or speaker uses begs the question incorrectly, he means to say that some fact or condition brings up a question that deserves consideration.

Incorrect use: “The increase of terrorist attacks begs the question of why authorities can’t stop them from happening.”

Instead of using begs the question, you could say “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “forces one to ask” or “makes me wonder” or “leads us to ask.”

From now on, please use this expression properly. I beg you.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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