Going begging

You will see the expression begs the question used incorrectly in many different contexts, from student compositions to respected national magazines and newspapers to TV news programs.

The concept of “begging the question”—also called a circular argument—is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known as petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise some truth that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, the cat uses certain assumptions (including his own madness) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is mad. He says, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.” This is using flawed logic.

You will see the phrase begs/begging the question used incorrectly in statements like this one:

Giving the schools billions more dollars begs the question of whether this will improve students’ grades.

Instead of writing “begs the question” in sentences like this one, write “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “invites the question” or “forces one to ask.”

Paul Thayer