Sunday, May 20, 2007

Begging (you to stop) the Questions

There are a couple of things that really irk me...usually it's the English teacher in me (though I'm no Grammar Nazi)--things like "irregardless", stuff like that.

But there's a new one that's becoming more and more prevalent and it's really quite upsetting because this one falls into the realm of logic, not grammar and usage.

My feeling: the world is already too freakin' illogical as it is. We don't need to compound the problem with sloppy language.

The problem: "begging the question"; "that begs the question..."

Here's how I just heard this used on NPR (for goodness sake!):
Interviewee: ...and his leaving the World Bank has made a lot of folks happy.
Interviewer: Well, that begs the question, of course...why did it take so long?

Um. No.
See it, "leads to the quesiton," it "raises the question," but it does not BEG the question. That's a term of logic--a material or informal fallacy in fact.

Here's what the (sometimes dubious but in this case correct) Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

In logic, begging the question has traditionally described a type of logical fallacy, petitio principii, in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises ([1] [2] [3] [4] ). Begging the question is related to the fallacy known as circular argument, circulus in probando, vicious circle or circular reasoning. As a concept in logic the first known definition in the West is by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 B.C., in his book Prior Analytics.

The phrase is sometimes used to simply mean "poses the question" [5]. This recasting of the term more directly describes a related fallacy, known as the Fallacy of many questions, that occurs when the evidence given for a proposition is as much in need of proof as the proposition itself

And for those who like Logic (again, from the Wiki site):
The following structure of an argument in which the question is begged is common:

* p implies q
* q implies r
* r implies p
* suppose p
* therefore, q
* therefore, r
* therefore, p.

Which, when simplified, shows itself as obviously flawed:

* p implies p
* suppose p
* therefore, p.

Okay, so the end of that is pretty darn clear, you can't use something to prove itself.

That food is awful because it's disgusting.
He's a jerk--you can tell becuase he's so unpleasant.
You can't trust that politician--I mean, come on! He's a politician.

See the difference between that and the NPR example above?

Normally I'm not such a stickler. But when someone like Aristotle put pen to paper a couple thousand years ago and preserved this idea--an idea which has been used correctly for a couple thousand years--well... I'm just a little uncomfortable having we lazy Americans know...change it. 'Cuz it's easier that way.

I generally distrust "easy."

My two cents.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! That drives me nuts too. I've gotten strange looks because I have occasionally just interrupted "and that begs the question..." with "no, it doesn't." Usually when I'm already irritated and can't control what's coming out of my mouth very well. :)

tea cozy said...

yeeessss...thank you!

now usually I'm against things like this, but I really think that everyone who goes through the public school system should have to take a course in at least minor deductive logic.

said the philosophy major...


Clementine said...

YES! People never understand when I try and explain why they are not "begging the question". I shall send them this post, in future. Thank you!!!

lupinbunny said...

Okay, so there is, according to logical thinking, a correct and incorrect time to use 'begs the question', but that doesn't account for the flexability/ mutability of language, and the way its use changes over time. I never knew there was a 'correct' way to use 'begs the question', I always assumed it was synonymous with 'poses the question'. At a guess, this would probably the assumption made by most of the unwashed masses. So, if the phrase has become detached from its original meaning/ purpose, can you still rightfully get cranky when people use it in its new sense?

I do reserve my right to get cranky over the incorrect use of qualifiers, because they are still recognised by the majority (I dearly hope) as carrying a certain specific meaning and purpose. The announcement on the trains in my city says "Please remember to take your personal belongings with you. However, if you see an unattended item please tell the transport staff". One morning I'm going to scream.